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Whitbourn, John

Entry updated 21 August 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1958-    ) UK author who began to publish work of genre interest with "Waiting for a Bus" in The Third Book of After Midnight Stories (anth 1987) edited by Amy Myers. The tale initiates the long Binscombe Tales sequence, some of them orthodox Club Stories, set near the author's home town of Godalming, Surrey, during the course of which a newcomer to this node point of the true England is conducted through adventures, mostly fantastic, by a mentor / Secret Master / Genius loci who protects the story of the Land; some similarities with Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill (coll of linked stories 1906) are expectably manifest.

Whitbourn is of more direct sf interest through the Alternate History unfolded in his second series, the Pevensey Trilogy beginning with A Dangerous Energy (1992), which won the 1991 First Fantasy Novel Competition jointly organized by BBC Radio 4's Bookshelf and the publishers Gollancz. Typical of his handling of his native land, Whitbourn's focus here is on an Equipoisal vision of the Matter of Britain, or rather England, a burden whose affirmation overrides genre constraints. The initiating Jonbar Point of the series is the early death of Queen Elizabeth of smallpox in 1562, which creates a world where Royalists can justly win the Civil War; under the stern guardianship of the Catholic Church which has – as in Keith Roberts's Pavane (1968) – retarded Technology, though in this case with the author's clear approval; Magic is tamed and policed. But the selfish, amoral Antihero Oakley is magically initiated by elves (see Supernatural Creatures), enters the Church, and proves brutally effective in "crusades" against England's heretical Protestant "Levellers". He advances himself by misusing Demons, source of all major magical power; these and their conjuration exude, as in James Blish's Black Easter (1968), an effective stench of Wrongness [for Matter and Demons above, Wrongness here and Otherworld below see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Oakley's climactic experiment in demonological research, though horrifying and hugely destructive, leads him to a futile dead end. He dies quietly in bed, to learn (like C S Lewis's damned) that his lifetime's efforts have achieved only his utter severance from God. The sequence continues with To Build Jerusalem (1995), where a new demon, from beyond the hierarchy previously explored by Oakley (who briefly appears), capriciously aids the Levellers and abducts the King and his court to a demonic Otherworld. This is investigated by an elite Vatican emissary and assassin who, reversing the spiritual regress of Oakley, begins in a dehumanized state, but during the action – skirmishes, conjurations, portal-crossings and battles against Monsters – moves some way towards ordinary empathy. The protagonist of The Two Confessions (2013) explores the chthonic roots of the belief structures fracturing the Land, and resolves them.

The Downs-Lord sequence beginning with Down's-Lord Dawn (1999) moves back and forth between seventeenth-century England and an Alternate World where humans are raised as cattle to feed Monsters known as the Null; the clergyman protagonist's ambitious scheme to bring gunpowder Weapons into this world to rescue his species is complicated by his own resulting corruption by victory and "god-king" power, and through an expansion of the Alternate World into Space Opera territory. The Books of Farouk beginning with The Book of Farouk (1); Or, Nothing is True: Being the Sacred & Profane Memoirs of King Farouk of Egypt, 1920-1965 (2018) [for full titles see Checklist below] fantasticates the life of the historical figure. The Young Adult Amy-Faith sequence beginning with Amy Faith & the Stronghold (2020) returns to a universe containing the Null, who are here opposed by Amy and the warriors for good housed in the eponymous fortress.

Whitbourn's first singleton, Popes and Phantoms (1993) [for more detail see Checklist below] is a blackly witty picaresque whose protagonist Admiral Slovo plays games with already skewed Renaissance history as agent of Secret Masters, encountering revenants, Borgias, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Henry VII, Martin Luther, Satan, etc. The Royal Changeling (1998) reiterates some of the material of Whitbourn's ongoing counter-history of England, based on the legitimacy of the Jacobite claims to the throne. The Age of the Triffids (2012) is a sequel to the John Wyndham novel, apparently not authorized. Frankenstein's Legions (2012), a Steampunk tale beginning in the 1830s, recruits Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace into England's attempts to create Android armies to fight off the resurgent French. The similarly Steampunk-like London of BABYLONdon (2020), which bears some resemblance to Richard Calder's Babylon (2006), defaults to fantasy derring-do, in the course of which England is saved from those who do not honour its deep story.

At the beginning of his career, Whitbourn could be described as writing well, with dry wit; the execution of more recent tales can seem to lose control. [DRL/JC]

John A Whitbourn

born Godalming, Surrey: 23 March 1958



Binscombe Tales

Pevensey Trilogy


The Books of Farouk


individual titles

collections and stories


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