Visions of Paradise

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

The Dragon Waiting

Fantasy and science fiction are loaded with relatively-unknown novels which earned kudos from critics but did not make a blip on the popular reading lists. Such an example is John M. Ford’s The Dragon Waiting, an early alternate history which won the World Fantasy Award in 1984. Its setting is an alternate Renaissance in which the Byzantine Empire controls remnants of the old Roman Empire, including large portions of Western Europe, and it threatens to seize control of the rest of France and England as well.

The first hundred pages are mostly background information, three long novelets setting up both the historical background and the main characters. In the first story a young Welsh boy who meets a captive wizard being led to his death by English soldiers discovers his own sorcerous powers which he uses to free the wizard and then follow him as his apprentice.

The second story tells of the teenaged son of the Byzantine governor of eastern France, the western half being controlled by the English. When the son discovers his father’s death at the hands of Byzantine agents planted in his father’s employ, the son and his friends plot revenge.

The third story is told from the point of view of a female doctor working for Lorenzo de’ Medici who encounters political intrigue involving Rome and Milan on the one hand and Florence on the other, with the long arm of the Byzantine Empire looming behind the fray.

The second portion of the book tells of a group of travelers trapped in a Swiss inn due to a snowstorm blocking the mountain pass leading out of that region. The story centers on four of the travelers:

1. Hywel, the Welsh boy, is now an aging sorcerer. However, sorcery must be used very sparingly, since it carries unwanted reactions to the user;

2. Dimitrios, the French youth, is now a mercenary;

3. Catherine is the Italian doctor;

4. the fourth traveler is Gregory, a German scholar who happens to be a vampire. Ford takes a very sfnal approach to vampires, treating it as a disease which requires the victim to drink blood, human or animal, to survive, although most vampires avoid taking so much blood as to kill any other human; other symptoms are longevity, an aversion to light, and considerable strength.

The novel follows the four travelers as they go to England to prevent the Byzantine Empire’s attempt to overthrow the English king and control the entire of Europe. And who is the English monarch at that time? Richard III!

The Dragon Waiting held numerous aspects which made it attractive to me: the history was well-developed and intriguing, and much of it was set in the midst of Yorkist England whose political intrigue has become legend. One drawback in the book was that the politics was so complex it would have been confusing had I not read two books on that era in the past year and thus was well-versed on the Woodvilles, the kingmaker, Buckingham, and the other intertwined parties. I’m not sure a novice to that era would understand all the book’s interrelationships fully.

There were a few other weaknesses as well. The characterization was not strong. At times it felt like Ford had given a few specific traits to each main character, especially the four travelers and Richard himself, and made no attempt to delve beneath those traits. Hywel, for example, never reveals his motives to the other characters, and remains inscrutable throughout. Since he planned most of the four travelers’ actions, I was confused by the motives behind much of what they did.

Another weakness was that some of the scenes in the novel seemed to have been written purely for wondrous effect, the literary version of visual special effects, and those scenes did not forward the story at all. That would not have been a problem except those scenes were generally unexplained and a bit confusing as well.

But none of those weaknesses were fatal to the story. I enjoyed Ford’s vision of late-medieval England and how the Yorkists lived in a constant state of border warfare and political intrigue, knowing neither resolution nor victory was possible. And the novel built up to a rousing climactic battle scene at the infamous Bosworth Field where in “our” history Richard met his death and Henry Tudor became king of England.

Overall I rate The Dragon Waiting 80% successful, and recommend it for people who enjoy alternate history with a touch of fantasy and a lot of historical detail. And, of course, if you’re a fan of Richard III, you’ll enjoy Ford’s interpretation of him.

Sunday, June 27, 2004


Welcome to the first installment of the online version of Visions of Paradise. This will not be any new material for my papernet readers, but selections from past issues of VoP, mostly articles and reviews. Enjoy

Peter Crowther is a British writer/editor who also publishes a series of hardcover sf novellas under the imprint PS Publishing. Periodically he publishes 4 of the novellas in anthologies under the running title Foursight. Recently the fourth volume was published as Cities , which contains 3 of the most acclaimed recent novellas from PS Publishing, one of which is by China Miéville, which is enough incentive to buy the book. Having read it, I am very pleased that I did.

I have not read much by Paul di Filippo even though he is very prolific and highly-acclaimed by some critics. A few years ago his collection Strange Trades was selected by several people as the finest original sf collection of the year. A Year in the Linear City was equally-acclaimed, and it opens the book Cities. I enjoyed it very much, and was very impressed by how it succeeded on several levels.

The “linear city” is exactly as it is described: a single block with rows of houses on either side, bordering a river on one side and a railroad track on the other. Although populated by humans, the city is a truly alien world. For example, when people die one of two types of ethereal beings take their bodies either to a heavenly place or a hellish one, depending on their goodness or badness during their life. The city is also virtually endless, so that nobody has ever seen “boroughs” more than a few thousand blocks away.

The protagonist Diego Patchin is a writer of “cosmogonic fiction” whose stories appear regularly in that genre’s top market Mirror Worlds. During the story he is always thinking of new ideas to use, and they are invariably facts that exist in “our” world which do not do so in his world. Such as the invention of telephones. Or airplanes. Or television. This small facet of the story is one of its most amusing parts.

Linear City is basically a satire with several aspects. The main storyline concerns a diplomatic trip by the mayor and other dignitaries from Diego’s borough to another borough several hundred thousand blocks down the line. The trip becomes a fiasco due to cultural differences which neither group had been prepared for.

A secondary storyline concerns Diego’s best friend Zohar and his heroin-addicted girlfriend Milagra who has a crisis when the delivery of heroin is abruptly stopped, and Diego must help Zohar save her life somehow.

The third storyline, which is admittedly a minor one, concerns Diego’s career as a writer of “cosmogonic fiction”, and how he is looked down upon by the literary establishment in spite of his popular success. I cannot help but wonder if this if a reaction to de Filippo’s own reputation in “mainstream” circles.

The “linear city” is a multi-faceted construct whose surface de Filippo barely scratched in this novella. I hope he plans to investigate it further, and I will definitely buy such a book if it is ever published.

The second novella is China Miéville’s The Tain, about which I have mixed feelings. On one hand it is a powerful story based on a very original concept in a chapter from Jorge Luis Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings. The chapter called “Fauna of Mirrors” supposes that images in mirrors were once-upon-a-time independent beings able to come and go through mirrors into our world. After the images attacked our world, they were defeated and imprisoned in the mirrors by the legendary Yellow Emperor, and have since despised humans and plotted to escape their imprisonment and take over control of our world. Their escape is the premise of The Tain.

The protagonist is a man named Scholl who has devised a plan to end the war which humans are losing badly. London, and presumably the entire world, is a battlefield nearly devoid of surviving humans or any surviving signs of civilization. Although basically a war story, it is rich with details of the transformed world and of the escaped images as well. But it has some problems.

One is that from the story’s beginning Scholl has a plan to end the war with the images, but while he mentions the plan numerous times, it is never revealed to the reader. In fact, the execution of that plan is the climax of the story, which is cheating on the part of Miéville. Since much of the story was told from the point of view of Scholl, if he knew something so important, the reader should have known it as well.

Another problem is that half of the story was told from the point of view of one of the escaped images, and these portions were as much confusing as they were revelatory. In fact, it was halfway through the story before I even realized whose viewpoint those portions were, so I went back and reread them and finally understood what was happening. While I might not be the most insightful of readers, neither do I think I am the densest, so presumably this was not exclusively my problem but partly that of the story itself. In fact, even after I figured out what was happening in those segments, the last one was still confusing to me.

The last problem is Scholl himself. The climax of the story is dependent on Scholl’s being special (or protected) in the eyes of the images, and he wonders a lot why that might be true. Halfway through the story I thought I knew why he must be special, but in fact the reason was never revealed at all (or, if it was, I missed it as well).

So I have to give this story a mixed review: fascinating concept, well-developed in parts, but having logical gaps and some confusion as well.

V.A.O. by Geoff Ryman starts out as a strange story: a bunch of residents in a nursing home are following a news story about a group of seniors committing a series of daring robberies under the slogan “Age Rage”. But the story builds momentum as it goes on. Ever wonder what today’s generation of unethical computer hackers will be like when they’re old? Ever wonder how residents of nursing homes really feel when they are abandoned by their families, treated without dignity or any real caring other than the most surface, basic caring?

V.A.O. gets stronger and stronger as a story as it goes along, really hitting home in the scene when a group of senior robbers are working a baseball stadium on national tv, and one of them makes the statement, “Do you think it won’t happen to you? Do you think health foods, gyms, and surgery are going to stop that? ...just remember. Your kids are watching you. And learning. What you do to us, your kids will do to you.”

Every middle-aged baby boomer, shuffling their parents off to nursing homes and leaving them there, shrugging at substandard treatment and lives made pointless when they should not be, should read this story very carefully and think about it. It is scarier than any horror story dares to be, because someday it will happen to all of us!