Saturday, November 4, 2023

Review: The Dragon Waiting, by John M. Ford

Review: The Dragon Waiting, by John M. Ford

a review by Rich Horton

I read this novel back in the '90s sometime, and I liked it but I felt that I didn't quite get it. I had decided it needed a reread, and my book club put it on the schedule -- so I did reread it! I bought the audiobook, read by Gerard Doyle. I assumed I'd find my own copy to have as reference ... and I couldn't find it! So I bought a used paperback, and ended up alternating listening and reading. And, naturally, I then remembered that my own copy was a hardcover! I'd been looking in the paperbacks. So now I have two! I will add that the new edition -- my audiobook but also the recent Tor trade paper reprint -- has a very nice introduction by Scott Lynch.

John M. Ford (1957-2006) was one of the most interesting and original SF writers of his time. He first impressed me with a story called "Mandalay", in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in 1979; other great short works include "Walkaway Clause", "Fugue State", and "Erase/Record/Play". I loved his second novel, The Princes of the Air, and also Growing up Weightless. He was a first-rate poet as well -- I am particularly fond of his Arthurian poem "Winter Solstice, Camelot Station" (which I discuss in this Black Gate piece). I also liked his two Star Trek novels, The Final Reflection and How Much for Just the Planet? His works were each very different to the others, in multiple genres, doing varied things, but always beautifully written, elliptical, complex -- resembling, say, Gene Wolfe and Dorothy Dunnett, among others. At his too early death (from a heart attack, perhaps caused by complications of Type 1 diabetes) he left an unfinished novel, Aspects (finally published in 2022), which I adore -- I think it would have been recognized as one of the great works of 21st Century Fantasy had he had a chance to finish it. (I review it here.) 

Somewhat notoriously Ford's novels went out of print after his death, and it seemed impossible to get them reprinted, as his estate was in a mess. Somewhat miraculously, Isaac Butler, a journalist and new-hatched Ford enthusiast, was able to track down his heirs and untangle the issue, which was apparently largely due to his agent leaving the field approximately as he died. Thus many of his novels have been reprinted, and some more books may be in the offing. The first to be reprinted was The Dragon Waiting.

The novel opens with an historical note, in which Ford tells us that the novel is a fantastical alternative history, though attempting to use period appropriate technology, and also true historical characters of the period (especially Richard III.) There follow three chapters introducing three of the four main characters (none of whom is present in the historical record.) In the first, Hywel is a ten year old Welsh boy, who is lured by a wizard sensing his talent to both free the wizard and go off with him to learn to use his talent, despite the wizard's dire warnings. In the second, Dimitrios Ducas is a teenaged boy whose father is the governor of a Gaulish province of the Empire of Byzantium. Dimitrios comes to realize that his father has essentially been exiled, and that as his family has a potential claim to be Emperor, there is danger of worse. He also has a remarkable talent to inspire loyalty in his friends, who include the native Gauls. All this -- and his mother's ambitions -- lead to a tragic result, and further exile for Dimitrios. In the third chapter we meet Cynthia Ricci, in her early 20s, a doctor serving Lorenzo de' Medici. The maneuvering of the states of Italy, especially with regard to the prospect of Byzantine rule, ends up with Lorenzo (and Florence) at the mercy of the Duke of Milan, and Cynthia and her father (also a doctor) are entangled in the mess. (The main action of the book is set roughly at the same time as Jo Walton's excellent novel Lent, and it was interesting to see Ford's portrayals of some of the characters from Lent, especially Marsilio Ficino and Girolamo Savanarola. As I know that Jo is a fan of Ford's novels, I'm sure she was aware of these parallels.)

Ford never tells us outright (until an afterword of additional historical notes) the Jonbar point of this alternate history, but it's clear that it lies with Constantine's successor, Julian the Apostate. In this history, Julian succeeded in his goal of rejecting Christianity, and established a rule for the Byzantine Empire that no faith would be given preference. By the 15th century, the Byzantine Empire controls much of Europe, with about half of Gaul under British control, and occasional nominally independent states around and between the major powers.

The main action of the novel starts a bit later, at an inn in Northern Italy. A group of travelers have gathered, just ahead of a storm. These include Timaeus Plato, a venerable scholar, with his companion, a soldier named Hector; Charles de la Maison, a French mercenary; Gregory von Bayern, a natural scientist; Claudio Falcone, a courier; Antonio Della Robbia, a Medici banker; and a gentlewoman named Caterina Ricardi. It is soon revealed that a wizard, named Nottesignore, has been sent to the stables. The reader fairly readily guesses the identities of Timaeus Plato, Hector, and Caterina Ricardi -- who have already been introduced to us. The rest of this section involves much conversation, a couple of murders, and a key revelation -- that Gregory von Bayern is, in fact, an expert in artillery, and a vampire. After a visit to France (or the remnants thereof), and encounters with Louis XI and the Margaret of Anjou, the widow of Henry VI, and an attempt to gain possession of a document giving George, Duke of Clarence, the crown of England instead of his brother, the current king, Edward IV; the main quartet (Hywel, Dimitrios, Cynthia, and Gregory) head for England, where they will become enmeshed in efforts to manage the future of the English crown, partly (or mainly) as an attempt to forestall Byzantine influence.

I won't say much more about the plot -- perhaps I've already said too much. But it is rich and complicated, and there are many more fascinating characters to meet: Richard III, of course (though he's not yet the king); a Christian Welsh witch named Mary Setright; Anthony Woodville, brother-in-law to King Edward IV, and a man regarded as a renaissance man, England's perfect knight; numerous other intriguers, including for example John Morton, rumored to be a wizard (and the originator of "Morton's Fork" in our history); and of course Edward's young sons, the famous "Princes in the Tower". There is lots of action -- battles, daring rescues, desperate treks. There is lots of magic -- wizardly spells, a remarkable dragon, alchemy. There are acts of wrenching heroism, and of dreadful treachery, and some that might be both at once. The resolution is powerful and moving. 

But most of all there is character. Cynthia's agony over her acts of violence, in violation of her oath as a doctor. Hywel's battles with letting his wizardly powers consume him -- apparently always a danger for wizards. Dimitrios' attempts to find a man to whom to be truly loyal. And Gregory's agonized struggle with his vampiric needs. I am no fan of vampire novels, on the whole, but I rank two as truly worthy: George R. R. Martin's Fevre Dream, and this novel. 

It is very well written, not simply on the prose level, though that is excellent, but on the emotional level. Line after line hits exactly right -- tears our hearts out or exalts us. "That's why she must go with Hywel: there are better quests than war." "Her eyes hurt, as if she were crying, but any tears would be lost in the rain. Lost the silver owl and gained an ugly blob of lead -- an alchemical miracle." "We forget that anyone who can curse can bless." "Once I have learned properly to hate, Uncle, then will I truly be King?" "There was no explaining to them the taste of their blood in his mouth." "We are what the world makes us. And half the world is Byzantium, and the other half looks East in wonder."

I will add one more note -- this rereading was immensely helped by referring to the Draco Concordans, a fan-produced concordance to the novel, mainly the work of Andrew Plotkin, with contributions by several other people. It does a great job clarifying the timeline, explaining both the real and alternative historical elements, and highlighting some of Ford's little jokes. (I found a couple that the Concordans missed -- the apparent nod to Roy Batty's death speech from Blade Runner (which appeared as Ford was writing the novel) and a nod to Mae West's autobiography Goodness Had Nothing to do With It.)


  1. Thanks for this review! (How is it possible that I did not know about Draco Concordans?)

    Still, there are too many typos for my taste. Especially annoying: Ford did not write "a blog" but "an ugly blob".

    One note: Fugue State and Erase/Record/Play are not really that short :-) On the other hand, I've always thought that The Persecutioner's Tale managed to pack more punch into about 10 pages than almost anybody else into much, much longer. Another one of his I like is Shelter from the Storm (a longish novelette).

  2. Thanks! Way too many typos for my taste too. I hope I have fixed them all.

    Sometimes it takes a week or so for me to have enough distance to see the typos, but that was worse than usual! I appreciated the poke.

    And as for "Fugue State" and "Erase/Record/Play", yeah, they're not precisely short stories, but they're not novels either, so they count as "short works" for me. :)

  3. This sounds like a fascinating experiment in medievalism. I'm not sure it's for me but I am also intrigued by Ford and his experimentation. I keep on telling myself to read his first novel Web of Angels (1980) -- an early cyberpunk adjacent novel.