Philip Purser-Hallard The Locksley Exploit (2015)
Philip Purser-Hallard is the best kept secret in British genre writing, runs a claim from the British Fantasy Society on the cover, further qualified by a quote from Andrew Hickey identifying the lad as one of the two or three best science-fiction and fantasy writers in the world today. Regardless of Andrew being a possibly less than impartial source on the grounds that he sort of knows the author, I would say he makes a fair assessment; although it should be kept in mind that my own word probably isn't worth tuppence either, as I sort of know both of them, at least as internet presences and people with whom I have had occasion to work in a creative capacity.
Anyway, yes much as I love yer Charles Stross and yer Neal Stephenson and all those other more financially conspicuous chaps, not a one of them has written anything which I would rate quite so highly as certain works by Philip Purser-Hallard or - seeing as we're here - Simon Bucher-Jones, in the event of anyone being interested; and here's more reason as to why.
The Locksley Exploit is the second part of the Devices trilogy and sequel to The Pendragon Protocol which came out last year. The Devices trilogy seems a fairly simple idea on the surface of it, but the more the narrative progresses, the more it becomes apparent just how much work has gone into this thing - as characterised by the fact of it all unfolding at an entirely natural and seemingly effortless pace - the mark of a true master of his art, namely that he makes it look easy. The story takes place in a very familiar contemporary England policed from way behind the scenes by the Round Table, the Knights of Arthurian legend expressed in the words and deeds of their modern day hosts. Except the whole premise is much closer to a believable, modern and even realist narrative than its constituent parts might suggest. This isn't about possession, reincarnation, or the contemporary puppets of mysterious, ancient forces so much as it is about contemporary western society and the schism by which it appears to be slowly destroying itself. Even the major players in The Locksley Exploit appear to understand exactly what is going on here.
'The myth of the Round Table has shaped so many of the ways we think about being British,' he says. 'The awe we hold our monarch in, as if she'd been appointed by God himself. The way we defer to the royal family, the bishops, the lords, even so-called captains of industry, as if they were the heroic figures Arthur surrounded himself with. The way we as a nation trust to authority, prefer not to stick our necks out, refuse to rock the boat. Even our national anthem isn't about the p-people, but about the person reigning over us. And that makes a kind of sense if your King was once a paragon among men, and might be again one day. But the Circle aren't paragons. Men is all they are.'
The schism is represented by conflicting legends, the Arthurian in contrast with the more egalitarian avatars of Robin Hood and his pals. The Locksley Exploit draws upon a formidable body of mythology in providing support for its peculiarly familiar world, English myth going way back, the kind which once scared the life out of me as a child, seeming to be all scowling wooden faces and rural witch trials. As such the novel reads almost like a textbook in places; which works well, I hasten to add, and makes for a satisfying and stimulating read. What this all adds up to is a reflection of a society pulling itself apart through the conflicting tides of its own disunity, and a disunity wrought largely by abstract ideas, much as the Devices are themselves abstractions.
We - the Circle and the Chapel and the British Beasts; the Gormund Boys and Sons of Gore and Paladins and Frontiersmen; all our equivalents in every culture and all our predecessors back through the millennia, since, perhaps, the dawn of human consciousness - are suffering, he'd say, from a massive and pandemic mental illness. We've convinced first ourselves and one another, then our children and descendants, and now at last our entire civilisation, that the voices we hear in our heads are those of the heroes of old, when in fact they're just that; voices in our heads.
It's interesting that such words should be written by an author of - unless I'm getting my wires crossed here, and apologies if this is so - formerly Christian faith. For some it may read as a variation on Dawkins' somewhat overstated calls for reason, or specifically that which he and his followers define as reason - eschewing all which might be deemed a byproduct of the imagination. Without getting into an entire side issue, the main problem with most versions of the Dawkins argument is the presupposing of there being a single answer for each question, and a single answer working equally well for all people under all possible circumstances: either you agree with me or you're wrong. Whilst this sort of reasoning keeps everything nice and simple, particularly for those seeking some flag under which to march, it isn't very helpful in achieving any sort of understanding of human society as a whole, because that understanding will almost inevitably be a variation on fuck 'em because they're too stupid to live, which is neither helpful nor interesting.
So, to finally swing around in the general direction of the point, it seems significant that a writer with a fairly profound understanding of the mechanism of faith should produce a novel conveying such an astute understanding of where we've been going wrong all this time; and considering where we appear to be heading, we really do need astute understandings, as opposed to people who think pissing off Muslims in the name of free speech represents some sort of blow struck in the name of their beloved reason.
So in answer to a question I didn't actually ask, namely what The Locksley Exploit is about, it's sort of about everything.
Getting back down to earth, or at least to the level of me sat in bed reading this thing for most of the last week, my only criticism would be that I found myself beginning to lose track of certain characters amongst the cast of thousands, who they were, and what had happened to them in The Pendragon Protocol. However, I've a feeling this may just have been me, and it didn't really impinge upon my general enjoyment. The first person present tense narrative of Alan a'Dale, dipping occasionally into archaeological, mythological, or psychogeographical asides, remains lively and engaging for the duration, never really descending into anything you could describe as routine or workmanlike; and it works so well as to carry the reader along regardless of the occasional lost strand, confident of it all making sense and adding up at the end, as indeed it does. The Locksley Exploit seems maybe not so startling as was The Pendragon Protocol, but it maintains the standard, and I'll be sure to re-read both before tackling the final part of the Devices trilogy, because I'm fairly sure that it will be worth the effort on the strength of the first two.