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The Dragon Waiting
John M. Ford
Gollancz, 365 pages

David Wyatt
The Dragon Waiting
John M. Ford
John M. Ford has won 2 World Fantasy Awards for his novel The Dragon Waiting and the poem "Winter Solstice, Camelot Station", was a Nebula Award finalist for "Fugue State" and won the Philip K. Dick Award for Growing Up Weightless. His writing style is varied; from the proto-cyberpunk Web of Angels, through Casting Fortune (a Liavek collection), to 2 of the more unusual Star Trek novels -- How Much For Just the Planet? and the Klingon point-of-view The Final Reflection. He is also an Origins Award-winning game designer.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: From the End of the Twentieth Century

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

"Now have appeared, though in several fashion,
The threats of majesty, the strength of passion,
Hopes of an empire, change of fortunes, all
What can to theatres of greatness fall,
Proving their weak foundations."
--- from "Perkin Warbeck"
Framed around the metrical history of Shakespeare's verse, this clever and complicated narrative relates an alternate depiction of the events surrounding the life and ascension of Richard III, at the same time retelling and inverting the history of Europe until at times it is difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction unless steeped in a study of the period. Granted, many elements are obvious fantasy, but they are so threaded with accurate detail and re-imagined fact that it is easy to become seduced by the story's illusions. Considering the time it was written (1983) and the relative paucity of good alternate history, it is little wonder that The Dragon Waiting quickly captured attention, and was acknowledged with a World Fantasy Award. Its impact since has not diminished, and its probable influence, with varying degrees of success, can be seen in the more recent work of authors such as Guy Gavriel Kay, Mary Gentle, Judith Tarr, or Sara Douglass. However, it can be argued that none so far have excelled in intelligence upon John M. Ford's example.

Continually pushing at the boundaries of what is expected, yet never over-reaching credulity (a problem that stalks much of alternate history; that and the at-one-time seemingly ubiquitous Nazi), Ford invests his narrative with a realism drawn from historical detail and insights into character while at the same time intertwining plot twists and reversals of fortune that keep the reader guessing. All of this is smartly done, as often through suggestion as narrative statement, and there are elements to the story that linger long after its final denouement, begging for further reflection or another reading. Not every event or episode is fully revealed, and many of the player's motives or actions toy with the reader's attention and ability to reconstruct the clues left along the way.

On the one hand laved with the romanticism often appropriated for the period, as well as attendant upon fantasy, the author nonetheless cleverly deromanticizes his text, picking apart the usual tropes and conventions, subverting or poising the fanciful against their opposite, or more shrewdly yet, merging the two until it is difficult to distinguish their individual identity. As the title implies, there is a dragon in this work, but only because we, along with the characters, opt to believe in it. At a certain point within The Dragon Waiting, one is forced to question where illusion begins and when it begins to dissemble towards delusion, and what role we play as unassuming actors upon the stage. And is it our own, history's, or the author's sleight of hand?

In a world in which Europe has been divided between the ambitions of a still puissant Byzantium and the familial, internecine squabbles and intrigue of British royalty (France reduced to Touraine and Anjou), four disparate characters are drawn together from far flung corners of the continent, ultimately united in their opposition to the machinations of the Byzantine Empire. Meeting serendipitously along the road, they become embroiled in a murder mystery that ultimately leads to a joining of forces, if at times uneasy and of differing or unstated goals. Under the enigmatic leadership of a sorcerer, the remaining confederates -- a renegade mercenary, a Florentine doctor, and a German artillerist afflicted with "porphyria" -- travel to England where they become embroiled in the schemes of Edward IV's court.

Eclectically blending elements of folklore, literature and historical inquiry -- Celtic myth, Arthurian Romance, and speculation upon events surrounding the ascension of Richard III -- with chronicled events and figures such as Lorenzo di Medici, the Sforzas, Margaret of Anjou, and the backdrop of the War of the Roses, Ford creates a conspiratorial stew of fantasy and history in which the lines between become wonderfully blurred. Written with a deft and clever hand, the text is leavened with fascinating historical anecdote as well as more contemporary commentary disguised within a factual as well as fantastical garb. Magic is at once imagined and tied to its recorded precedents, both inventive and totally believable.

Episodic in structure, Ford densely condenses his narrative without loss in content or narrative momentum, and in a manner that might benefit emulation by some of the more garrulous practitioners currently penning fantasy and alternate history. The only moment in which this approach fails somewhat is in the second section entitled "Companions of the Storm," where it may be argued that the meeting of the protagonists is a trifle too coincidental, and that the events which follow appear comparatively sketchy and digressive from the rest of the text. Certainly the character of Gregory is handled with relative brevity, and the investigation of the courier's murder possesses all the trappings and resultant defects typical of the usual detective novel. The solution becomes a bit too clever for its own good, and the entire episode smacks of contrivance. However, this might partially be the episode's intention: elsewhere the narrative contains a note of parody for the tropes of genre and history. Adding mystery to his list of burlesques possesses a certain associative logic. And, for those that enjoy this sort of thing, it will offer an additional delight.

Aside from this criticism, which is momentary, The Dragon Waiting is a thoroughly rewarding and impressive novel, written with an intellect rarely seen in fantasy fiction. Adroitly constructed, and delivered with a style and subtle wit that set it apart, it is hard to recall an alternate history that delivers more in its concise and richly conceived fashion. Once again, one is urged to appreciate the publisher's reissue of this prominent work. However, once again one is also forced to acknowledge the shoddiness of presentation: the dry adhesive binding already failing after a single reading. This is a story that deserves far better.

Copyright © 2002 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction. In addition to his writing, he is pursuing masters degrees in information science as well as history at Indiana University.

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