❉ We review the ‘Devices’ trilogy, a unique urban fantasy political thriller by City of the Saved creator, Philip Purser-Hallard.
Before I start, a quick declaration of interest – I’ve known Philip Purser-Hallard online for several years and think very highly of him, and we’ve worked together on a couple of projects where he’s been my editor. I don’t believe that either of these things have affected my opinion of these books – not least because I got to know him because I was already a fan of his writing – but it would be wrong to proceed without acknowledging that upfront.
That said, those who have been following Purser-Hallard’s career know that for too long he has been one of science fiction and fantasy’s best kept secrets. Almost all his writing before the Devices trilogy has been for Doctor Who spin-off ranges – and not even for the Doctor Who books themselves, but for spin-offs of spin-offs (and sometimes spin-offs of spin-offs of spin-offs) like Faction Paradox, Time Hunter, Bernice Summerfield, Iris Wildthyme, and his own The City of the Saved. Such books tend to be looked down on by almost everyone, but Purser-Hallard’s work in those series has been quite astonishingly good. He’s one of the three or four best science fiction and fantasy writers today, and manages to combine a density of ideas greater than almost anyone working in the field with a clear, witty, writing style which makes his work a joy to read, unlike that of many other purveyors of Big Ideas.
The Devices trilogy is Purser-Hallard’s first mainstream work, and has at its centre one of those SFF ideas which make every writer who reads it smack themselves on the head and say “why didn’t I think of that?”
The books have taken on a whole new meaning in the light of political events since the first book in the series was released two years ago.
The Circle, who as the trilogy starts are a semi-secret arm of the British security services, think of themselves as the continuation of King Arthur’s Round Table. Specifically, each of the Circle’s knights thinks of himself as being in some way a specific knight of the Round Table – Sir Lancelot, Sir Galahad, Sir Gawain, and so on. They think this because they are joined with “Devices”, described early in the series as semi-autonomous memes which may or may not have any physical existence (though it’s generally assumed they don’t). These Devices – ideas the bearers have about themselves, essentially – give the bearers the attributes of the knights, including having psychosomatic effects which give them near-superhuman abilities (while still remaining within the bounds of the physically possible – as far as the knights know, they have no real magical powers). But they also give the knights the flaws of their originals, too – in particular they are compelled to follow the same stories as the originals, so Mordred will always eventually betray the order, Merlin will always end up imprisoned or senile, and so on.
And in the case of Jory Taylor, the protagonist, who has the Device of Sir Gawain, he will behead the Green Knight, or be beheaded by him. Which is a problem when Jory realises that the latest Green Knight is an old friend of his from university…
It’s very difficult to talk about the plot as a plot from there, because there are a few major upsets to either the basic premise or to the status of Taylor – in particular one big twist at the end of the second book, and one which actually made my jaw drop half-way through the first book – which I wouldn’t want to spoil.
In many ways, these books are similar to Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series, or Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers series
It’s much easier, though, to talk about the books in terms of ideas and writing. In many ways, these books are similar to Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series, or Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers series, though without either Stross’ geek-pandering or Aaronovitch’s overly-obvious plotting, and with a slightly technothrillerish edge to them that those other books don’t have. The Devices books, though, are about things in a way those other series (both of which I do enjoy) are not.
In particular, the books have taken on a whole new meaning in the light of political events since the first book in the series was released two years ago. One of the things which the series is about is a split between two very different ideas of English-ness (and the books are very much about England, rather than Britain) and their relative strengths and weaknesses. On the one side there’s a view of England as a nation in decline that needs to return to a golden age of chivalry, in which people know their place and prize loyalty, honour, and obedience to authority, while on the other there are the ideals of equality, openness, respect for the environment, and freedom. On the one side the Cavaliers, the other the Roundheads. The Tories and the Whigs. The established church and the nonconformists. The landowners and the Diggers. The Normans and the Saxons.
There are no caricature villains here – everyone is a realistic figure acting for the most part from genuinely sympathetic motives.
While this is obviously an oversimplification (and the fact that it’s an oversimplification is made very pointedly in the narrative itself), it’s one that has a certain amount of truth in it, and one that resonates a lot with the current divisions in the country over Brexit. And indeed, there’s an argument (in Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer) that the “red states” in the US were settled primarily by Cavaliers, while the “blue states” were settled by Puritans, in which case the current Trump madness could even be seen through the same lens.
Of course, these books aren’t textbooks on political history – they’re fantasy novels, and to be read as such – but they are fantasy novels which have a lot more to say about the world we find ourselves in today than I suspect even Purser-Hallard expected them to when he started writing them.
Purser-Hallard is obviously on the side of the subversives, anarchists, and rebels, but he manages to make both sides of this division sympathetic, and to emphasise the real strengths of both ways of thinking. There are no caricature villains here – everyone is a realistic figure acting for the most part from genuinely sympathetic motives. While he doesn’t present anyone as repulsive, the people he sides against are presented as romantic but wrong. He understands the appeal of an authoritarian view of the world, even as he’s against it (William Blake is one of several poets and songwriters whose work is pastiched or rewritten in these books, and his anti-Puritan anti-authoritarianism seems to be one of the better ways of combining both views of England).
These are genuinely gripping, page-turning, well-paced thrillers with strong, believable, characters.
These books are impossible to sum up within the word count of a We Are Cult review, and I may have overemphasised the ideas as opposed to the plot, characterisation, and other aspects which appeal to readers. All I need to say on that score is that these are genuinely gripping, page-turning, well-paced thrillers with strong, believable, characters, while the narrative voice is one that has few precedents in this kind of book. (The books are told by a first-person narrator who is part of the narrative, but who only plays a minor part and is often reporting on what he has been told by third parties. This allows Purser-Hallard to move between different levels of narrative distance while also allowing for first-person interjections. Much of this isn’t stuff that the casual reader will really notice, but there are quite a few bits where, as a writer, I found myself amazed by the facility with which he uses narrative voice).
The Devices trilogy deserves to be much more widely known. Purser-Hallard may still be a well-kept secret, but sooner or later the quality of his writing will reach the wide audience that is obviously there for it. Get these before his career explodes.
❉ The third volume in Philip Purser-Hallard’s ‘Devices’ trilogy, ‘Trojans’, was published by Snowbooks on 4 October 2016.
❉ Philip Purser-Hallard is the range editor for Obverse Books’ Black Archive series. visit the Black Archive website.
❉ Andrew Hickey has written books on topics including superhero comics, 1960s pop music, Doctor Who, and the intersections between those subjects. His first novel, Faction Paradox: Head of State, came out in 2015, and his most recent book, The Black Archive 7: The Mind Robber was published by Obverse Books in September 2016. His writing is crowdfunded at http://patreon.com/andrewhickey if you fancy giving him money.