The Pendragon Protocol by Philip Purser-Hallard, Snowbooks, £7.99, www.snowbooks.com
Review by Stuart Douglas
Philip Purser-Hallard is the best kept secret in British genre writing, but hopefully this book will be the one to change all that, and bring him the mass audience he deserves.
Best known for his work in the Doctor Who universe and its various off-shoots, until now Purser-Hallard has written exclusively for indie and small presses, with novellas for Big Finish and Telos being his most high profile work to hit the shelves. It’s fair to say, however, that ‘The Pendragon Protocol’ marks a step up in potential reach, being both a part of a standalone urban fantasy series, and part of the excellent Snowbooks stable of books (a company who have already launched the careers of the likes of George Mann, Samuel Morden and Mark Hodder).
It obviously helps that the basis for the book, and the series to follow (‘The Devices Trilogy’), is that rarest of fantasy beasts – an original idea.
Put simply and briefly, the protagonist, Jory, is a Knight of the Circle – in effect the current holder of a place at King Arthur’s mystical Round Table, sworn to protect Britain from threat. Which, of course, sounds like the basic set-up of any number of book and TV series (imagine ‘Torchwood’ with swords and horses, or Ben Aaronovitch’s ‘Rivers of London’ series, except with terrorists, not ghosts).
What sets ‘The Pendragon Protocol’ apart is the reason the Circle exists – the fact that semi-mystical ‘devices’ are able to confer powers on certain individuals. It’s more subtle than that, actually – the devices are a combination of symbology and story-telling, a form of insubstantial archetype created from the accumulation of British history and then linked to individual Knights (it’s actually even more subtle that that, but you should read the book for a more in-depth analysis).
This is the first book in a fantasy trilogy, and as with all such series, part of the first volume is inevitably taken up with establishing characters and settings. This can often be a bit dull for the reader, but Purser-Hallard threads sufficient action and humour throughout to avoid the worst excesses of such an approach, and by the time you get half way through you’re really into the meat of the story and, it feels, making a new discovery every chapter.
The writing is crisp and clever, the plotting devoid of flab and the cast of characters appealing, interesting and consistent. There’s also – thankfully – enough foreshadowed developments for the reader to be confident that the story needs a trilogy, rather than being a longish novel stretched over a three novel frame.
When I was a kid, fantasy meant Tolkein, Lewis and, most of all for me, TH White. ‘The Pendragon Protocol’ feels like a fitting updating of “The Once and Future King”. I can’t think of any higher praise for this novel…