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Tuesday, 20 July 2021

Popes & Phantoms

If you're a regular visitor to this blog you'll know the high regard I have for the work of John Whitbourn, who is possibly the leading author in the field of the English New Weird. And, full disclosure: John also happens to be one of my oldest and dearest friends. Not that I'd allow that to sway my judgement; I have lots of author friends and I don't recommend all their books with the same unforced enthusiasm I have for works like the Binscombe Tales and Babylondon.

This one is a special treat. It's John Whitbourn's second ever novel, originally published in 1992, which has finally been released in its complete version. I read it in manuscript more than thirty years ago and there are still scenes that are so vivid in my memory that I have to remind myself it wasn't a movie. To quote from the publisher's website:

"Admiral Slovo was a man of his time, but of more than one dimension. In his sixteenth century, a pirate might be followed by the corpse of his victim, walking across the ocean, until putrescence claimed it. Or an interview with the Pope might be mirrored, exactly, by one with the Devil. Reality shifts could cause a king to see his capital city shimmer into another realm entirely. 

"Through such scenes of macabre hallucination, mayhem and murder, Slovo is a man alone, set apart by his stoic beliefs from the rigours of human fears and passions. As such, he was a valuable find for the Vehme, a clandestine, subversive society that ensnares its members from an early age, securing loyalties by the expedient methods of blackmail, bribery and barbarism.

"But Slovo is more than a Vehmist puppet, and whether as a brigand on the high seas, or emissary to the Borgias, or as the Pope’s Machiavellian Mr Fix-it, he plots a course that suits his own ends as much as those of his paymasters. He knows that, in the words of his mentor Marcus Aurelius, 'in a brief while you will be ashes of bare bones; a name, or perhaps not even a name'. And there are few things that cannot be solved by a stiletto in the eye."

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