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.


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