The Devices trilogy
The Pendragon Protocol
Medium: book
Year: 2014
Publisher: Snowbooks Ltd
Country: UK
Series: The Devices trilogy >>
Writer: Philip Purser-Hallard
ISBN: 978-1-909679-17-7
Website category: British
Review date: 21 July 2014
Personal disclaimer: I saw an earlier draft of this in 2012.
It's the first of a trilogy by Philip Purser-Hallard, about King Arthur's knights in the present day. Well, sort of. And it's broader than that.
This involves things that some of its characters call "devices", which is how legendary fictional characters have come to be in a real-world 21st century Britain. Page one has a knight in armour outside a semi-detached house in a suburban street, while his man-at-arms uses a laptop. It's an utterly ordinary world. The house they're about to assault has a blue Volvo in the driveway. This juxtaposition is fun, but it's only the beginning.
You see, bonding with a "device" makes you, in some sense, King Arthur. Or Sir Lancelot, or whatever legendary person your device represents. (There isn't actually a representative of Arthur himself, as it happens.) This isn't possession, mind you. You're not joining souls with the ghost of some bloke from the Dark Ages, but instead (and this is the subtler, more interesting bit) with the psychic resonance their stories have left in our collective psyches over the centuries. This has all kinds of effects on your body and personality, but technically they're all psychosomatic. You become stronger because you think you are. You also acquire a tendency to behave like the personality who's been overlaid on your own, complete with a "story-blindness" that tends to stop people from realising when they're turning their lives into a mirror of the original stories.
If you bonded with the device of Achilles, for instance, you'd become enormously strong and brave, but you'd probably end up getting yourself killed through some heel-related mishap, no matter how often all your friends tried to warn you about it. You're still yourself. You still know everything you used to. It's just that your brain is now also inhabited by a second set of personality traits (and probably quite forceful ones), which is liable to affect you in all kinds of ways.
This is a cool idea. I'll admit that what I've read of Phil's work has often struck me as more about worldbuilding than storytelling, if that's not a facile thing to say about someone who's written an entire book in homage to Olaf Stapledon. The Pendragon Protocol feels like that for the first hundred pages or so. It's a bit static. There's action, but (a) it's merely the dispassionate work of a knight doing his job and (b) in any case Phil keeps cutting away to a parallel narrative from another time in our hero's life and putting another speed bump in the path of the narrative momentum. Briefly, it even felt like Torchwood. Jory's organisation has a similar relationship with the authorities, a similar nostalgia for bygone eras of British history, similar missions in the field and a similarly approach to sorting them out.
However this is a decently chunky book and, what's more, the first of a trilogy. There's plenty of room for the plot to take a run-up, so to speak. It gets more and more interesting as we learn more specifics about how this fictional universe works. Jory's life gets more complicated and his obstacles get ever more serious, until by the end the book's properly cooking. You don't know where all this is going, but it's going to be fun finding out. The devices are letting Phil do the ancient British equivalent of King Kong vs. Godzilla, although of course there's far more to it than that.
I particularly enjoyed the critical evaluation of the source material. It's not just "look, King Arthur with a sword!". Phil's analysing the original legends and saying genuinely interesting things about them. I really enjoyed this. It's a level of self-awareness that you normally don't get, but the idea he's come up with lets Phil be academic and analytical without undermining the drama of his own story. In fact, it enhances it. If you were bonded to a device, you'd be thinking in this kind of depth about the nature of the original stories too. It's entertaining and even funny. I love Jory's knightly honour, for instance, and how inconvenient it can be in critical situations. (If you've made an enemy of the knights, for instance, they will behave in accordance with rigid honour until certain triggers kick in, e.g. you step outside certain limits yourself. When that happens, you've just given them permission to go nuclear. Duck.)
In short, a good'un. Recommended. It's slow in the early chapters, when Jory's basically a bloke doing his job, but that's partly just setting up his world and the launchpad from which the rest of the book will take flight. As it does on, the book builds momentum. The more we learn about the devices, the more we're interested. It's intelligent, painstakingly thought through and on the evidence so far, with easily enough potential for a trilogy. Admirable.