It's very good. I enjoyed it more than I did when reading the first draft and I think I was overly hard on it to Phil back then. It's interesting.
It's the second book in the Devices trilogy, with England's two mythologies butting heads. King Arthur's knights are at war with Robin Hood's merry men. However this is the present day and all these fictional or fictionalised characters can in fact be thought of as ultra-aggressive memes. It's as if Sir Galahad and all that lot are ghosts. They're not. They don't, objectively, exist. If you think you've been possessed by Sir Galahad, then it's really just all in your head and any Galahad-like strength, swordsmanship and other traits you might have inherited are really just psychosomatic. What's more, the modern inheritors of these traditions aren't mad (mostly) and are perfectly aware of all this.
(Probably. For all I know, everything I've just been saying might turn out to have been a lie in book three.)
On another level, though, the details don't matter. It's still the Round Table vs. Sherwood Forest. The Circle (as the knights call themselves) are old, rich and powerful. The Chapel (the merry men) are anarchist eco-activists. They've recently become very aware of each other and it may or may not turn out to be possible for them to co-exist peacefully.
I was reminded of Nobunagun
, incidentally. What can I say? I was reading/watching them at the same time. I don't know if Phil's in the habit of watching anime, but he might be amused if he tried this one.
Good stuff: it's thoughtful and imaginative. It doesn't just regurgitate myths, but analyses them. I particularly enjoyed the glimpses of other myths beyond Britain, with on more than one occasion a suggestion that Phil might be teasing us with the possibility of introducing Christianity as another mythic story in book three. (No offence meant with the word "mythic"; I hope you know what I mean.) This would be interesting if only for its knock-on effect on the book's main two mythologies, which are riddled with Christian iconography that in some cases are prominent in this book. Anyway, the narrative tells us at one point that gods don't turn up, so clearly such a possibility has at least been taken into account. Apart from anything else, theoretically you'd expect to see something about them since it's surely hard to argue that religion doesn't trump folk myth in terms of presence in people's lives and minds.
That said, though, doing that would wrench this into a completely different kind of tale. All things considered, I think I'd be surprised if Jesus and his disciples showed up in book three, but also slightly disappointed if they didn't.
Celtic myths are cool. One tends to forget about them since they don't have the same public profile as Greek, Norse, etc. but they're pretty wacky and I enjoyed seeing them get a bit of publicity.
I also liked the violence. This is mostly a civilised, well-mannered book in which everyone's being terribly British (albeit sometimes in a class warrior kind of way), but Phil's not afraid to kill people when you don't expect him to. Not to mention [SPOILER].
Does the book have a downside? Well, yes. I don't think it's very dramatic, if one defines that as "a story driven by its characters' dramatic decisions". It's more like chessboard plotting. It's a story on a big scale, with two national movements rubbing up against each other, and the individual characters can be in danger of getting a bit lost, I think. The individuals don't always feel as if they matter that much, to be honest. Jory sort of follows Malory around and does whatever seems inoffensive at the time. His most memorable moment, for me, is the bit where he channels the 5th Doctor in Black Orchid and says he's always wanted to drive a train. Malory is Basil Exposition. Merlin gets some cool scenes (as was obligatory, being Merlin), but he's not really a combatant. Other characters are just random spear-carriers, often with an iconic name and a bit of personality, but not much sense that they're anything but followers. Even villains, when unmasked, tend to be "oh, them?"
The book has huge game-changing scenes, yes. That's good. However they're basically swiped from the original myths and rely for their effect on everyone bowing down and worshipping the old stories, which is appropriate and fitting, but also in another way doesn't feel entirely organic.
The narrative voice is also part of that. We have a loud narrator, who rambles on about whatever's on his mind and is apparently telling this story as history from several decades in the future. He reduces the immediacy. Our characters' anxieties, dangers and attempts to plan and infer are being seen at one remove. That said, though, I wouldn't pin it all on him. The operation against the groanworthily-named Saxon Shield (see the acronym), for instance, is tension-free because there's no possibility of our heroes losing and it wouldn't have made much difference to anything if they had. It's upping the action quotient, but it's basically just a "day in the life" bit.
All that said, though, that's not really a problem. This isn't the book I'd have written, but so what? I read it happily and I'm looking forward to seeing where things go in book three (which will clearly be very different from books one and two). It's arguably more the story of two evolving bodies of myth rather than its individual characters, but I quite enjoyed seeing those bodies of myth in action and the sometimes bloody consequences for the UK in 2015. Besides, it's a book on a big scale. A broader focus was in some ways inevitable. One can cite some big names who are clearly overdue an appearance, but that too is to be expected. We have book three for that. Should be good. The ideas can be funny, e.g. the fine details of the Saxon Shield being Anglo-Saxon supremacists, and I can never have too much of Ibrahim Al-Khuzaie. It's an admirable feat of imagination and craft.