The Pendragon Protocol

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fourstars

The Pendragon Protocol by Philip Purser-Hallard (Book One of The Devices Trilogy) Snowbooks July 2014
416pp £7.99

Reviewed by Adrian Middleton

[First up, apologies to the author, Philip Purser-Hallard. This review, submitted in good faith to a another site that shall not be mentioned, was not used and left to languish against my wishes. I now publish this review in advance of the release of the second book in the trilogy, The Locksley Exploit (available for kindle now), which I hope to review shortly.]

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table have long been a staple of adventure stories, and with the emergence of urban fantasy as a genre there’s been no let up. Most recently I’ve come across Maurice Broadus’ Knights of Breton Court trilogy from Angry Robot (Modern knights reimagined on the streets of Indianapolis) and Alan Fenton’s Return of Arthur cycle (a modern retelling of the Arthur myth) from the Dovecote press.

Thankfully, Purser-Hallard doesn’t let the apple fall too far from the tree.

Despite being set in the modern day, The Pendragon Protocol is a tale of the Kingdom of Logres (England to you and me), and feels more like a story set in the real world ties than many other urban fantasies whose magic lies within the dark shadows of gritty street corners. It also constrains itself to London for the most part – resisting the temptation to seek out mythic locales that might be hidden in some unchanged medieval landscape.

What matters is that the Knights of the Round Table never really went away, they simply became the Circle, a not-quite hidden service that operates alongside the modern police force, turning up and following their own very special set of procedures designed to manage and control the activities of those mythic archetypes first encountered in the Arthurian period. For me, the recognisable city of London and the comforting backdrop of the modern police procedural provide the perfect entry point for this world, setting it apart from other modern Arthuriana and standing it up alongside the more popular (and successful) urban fantasy series’ – particularly those of other former Doctor Who novelists like Ben Aaronovitch and Paul Cornell.

Perhaps the cutting-of-teeth on the literary adventures of a televisual Time Lord creates an inherent advantage for those integrating the fantastic and the mundane, but the Devices world is as well built as that of Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, and – despite needing to acclimatise to the narrative style in the first few pages of the book – it is just as easy a read.

The story feels like a cross between urban myth and modern superhero fantasy, with a solid undercurrent that dips into the tropes of religion and folklore alike, exploring the themes and ideas that have shaped British society over the centuries.

On the one hand, there is a sense of logic to the evolution of the Circle and to the technology that it wields, reminding me a little of how the Avengers can integrate the adventures of a high-tech man in an iron suit alongside a Norse god armed with a mystic hammer. My suspension of disbelief was maintained throughout the book, which maintained its pace beyond the central watershed of the plot.
On the other hand, hidden beneath a safely linear narrative in the pursuit of the Green Knight, is the journey taken by Jory Taylor/Sir Gawain, whose methodical approach overturns and examines the moral, societal and political aspects of the Arthurian ideal with enough depth to satisfy the deeper, more intellectual reader, but in a straightforward enough manner to satisfy the action-chaser that doesn’t want to pause to consider its implications too much. It’s a hard balance to strike, but Purser-Hallar achieves it well, and left this reader both satisfied and wanting more.

If I am disappointed by anything it is not the prose, but rather the packaging – the title (both of the book and the series) and the cover fail to make this book stand out. Had I not already been a reader of Purser-Hallard’s work, I doubt I would have paid much attention on a crowded bookshelf. Yes, it name-checks the Arthurian cycle, but ‘The Devices Trilogy’ sounds decidedly steampunk, but the cover fails to shine, meaning that word of mouth is what will make the difference here. For me such word of mouth is very much deserved – The Pendragon Protocol is solid, original and imaginative, with good character construction and development which doesn’t just make me keen to see how the series continues, but to want to see it re-imagined in comics and on the big screen.

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Seven Wonders

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Seven Wonders by Adam Christopher

Angry Robot Books   September 2012   £7.99   411pp

Reviewed by Adrian Middleton

In the wake of his debut novel, Empire State, Adam Christopher steps sideways from the noir city to the shining superhero city of San Ventura to bring us a trip into the four colour world of the Seven Wonders, the last great superhero team, protecting the world and, in particular, the West Coast of America, from the last supervillain team up, The black-clad Cowl and his girl-wonder sidekick, Blackbird.

The pulp style of the novel gets the story off to a cracking start, with a touch that made me believe the book started life as a comic script rather than a novel. Each paragraph feels as if it’s describing an individual comic-book panel which, while giving the feel of authenticity to the piece, made me feel bereft of the depth that the prose of a novel, rather than a graphic novel, can bring.

More influenced by the superhero universes of DC and Wildstorm comics – particularly Batman, Superman and The Authority – Christopher’s world is filled with shades of grey, enthusiastically raising questions about the morality of its heroes and villains, making the reader question who are the real heroes and villains throughout the story.

The story follows the lives of the Cowl, San Ventura’s greatest billionnaire-supervillain, as his powers are mysteriously on the wane, the city’s newest hero, Tony Prosdocimi, and Blackbird, whose own motivations drive the story forward at a speed more like that of a cancelled soap opera than a speeding bullet.

Ultimately is the soap element – the relationships between the characters and their interactions with the San Ventura police and the Seven Wonders themselves – which drives the story forward. Unfortunately, the promised depth isn’t forthcoming, and the story dwells more on set-pieces like the protagonist’s fight to come to terms first with the emergence of his superman-like powers (clearly inspired by Larry Niven’s seminal essay ‘Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex’) and on the TV-style police procedural investigation by Sam Millar and Joe Milano, cops from a SuperCrime department responsible for dealing with the city’s super-powered community on zero budget. These are nice vignettes, but they don’t make up for weak characters who go through the motions with tenuous motives.

The book has some great moments, but they pass quickly, stopping short of what could have been comic-book gold had they been explored in the four-colour medium. Take an early scene where the Cowl touches upon the question: who is acting in the best interests of the city? Aloof heroes with no connection to the people, or career criminals who know every corner of the neighbourhoods they grew up in, protecting their territory while perpetrating crimes in other parts of the city. Unfortunately, when moments like this appear, they fade quickly and are not returned to, making potentially great thematic story elements into little more than passing thoughts.

Ultimately this brings me to the conclusion that as pulp prose, Seven Wonders should have been a comic book, and not a novel. Yes, it is light, action paced and entertaining, with lots of twists and turns as the story progresses, but ultimately without pictures to add depth to some fairly weak characterization, the book leaves me just a little too under-whelmed.

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RIP Sir Terry

SirTerry

SIR TERRY PRATCHETT 1948-2015

Back before I started writing other fiction I was writing fantasy comedy. An avid fan of Douglas Adams in the wake of the Hitchhikers’ Guide radio series, I wanted nothing better than to write as well as he did. My pastiches were pretty good, to the point where I could write an article from the Guide and be accused of theft by anyone who read it! Then DNA’s books became fewer and farther between, and Terry Pratchett rose to prominence. I remember the many arguments I had thinking Adams was unsurpassable despite refusing to read The Colour of Magic (just in case it turned out to be better). Eventually the sheer weight of Terry’s output brushed Adams aside, and my writerly frustrations turned towards the fantasy market.

Every story or idea I came up with back then ended up in a book by Tom Holt or Sir Terry, usually a good year or so after I had conceived it. There was the story about the Norse Gods returning to Earth in search of the god of the 20th Century (yeah, Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? did that one better). Then there was the story where I based the Angel of Death on the fanatical Major Neuheim from Private Schultz (as played by Ian Richardson), then along came Mort and with a big sigh I had to return to the drawing board. Another of my ideas turned up in an Andrew Harman book (but I later found that Robert Rankin had beaten both of us to it! I won’t even mention Moses the Musical!), and then another of my ideas turned up, I think, as a footnote in Pyramids. Eventually, in 1999, when the millennium novel was writing remained unfinished by the time of the millennium, I gave up on dreams of writing genre comedy altogether.

The sad truth is that writers have ideas, and they don’t use them all, or else they spend too much time trying to use them, only to discover that “Bum! Someone else had the same idea and they used it SUCCESSFULLY!”. I am told that Sir Terry blamed this phenomenon on stray ideon particles visiting me and not being used quickly enough. His loss is a great tragedy, and (because I avoided reading them for so long) I have a lot of books to catch up on.

Those that know me are well aware that I have ideas tumbling out of every orifice. Like the human brain I use less than 10% of them. It’s been a while since I properly returned to the comedy genre. I’ve been thinking about it for a while, but the  scary shadow that Adams and Pratchett over the genres that they had shaped were pretty big. Many writers – Andrew Harman again springs to mind – tried to succeed in it, but the bar was set so high, and the challenge so great,that they didn’t last long. I certainly decided to leave well alone – that kind of thing is absolutely what I grew up wanting to write, but I just dared not.

Maybe, instead of avoiding the genre because of these giants, I might delve back into it in Sir Terry’s memory.

“Enter freely, and of your own will…”

“…and leave behind a little of the happiness that you bring.”

Lovely sentiment.

Wasted on the lips of Count Dracula though.

My name is not Metabaronic, but Adrian Middleton, and this, for better or for worse, is my blog.

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