Sunday, September 19, 2010

1984 World Fantasy Award - THE DRAGON WAITING by John Ford

John Ford (who passed away a few years ago) had a lot of admirers. The likes of Neil Gaiman are effusive in their praise of his work, and even moreso in their praise of the man himself as a mentor and a friend. For all those reasons I really wanted and expected to like this book. The book itself made me want to like it as well – every page is full of interesting ideas and nice little character moments, and Ford offers some of the most pleasantly readable prose this side of Robert Heinlein. And yet…

The Dragon Waiting is a historical fantasy: the world is like our own past - in the late 15th century in this case - but there have been a few major changes. Magic exists, for one, and wizards, dragons, and vampires all play major roles here. Also, Christianity was purged from the Roman Empire after Emperor Constantine’s conversion – as a result, most Europeans still worship the pagan gods of Rome. And, the Empire itself has endured, seated in Byzantium (which avoids two name changes, Constantinople and Istanbul, in the process). Ford introduces a cast that includes an English wizard, a female doctor linked to the Medicis, a Byzantine prince, and a German vampire, and puts them through a series of small adventures (separately then together) which eventually bring them to the court of Richard III. Richard’s battle with the would-be Henry VII plays out far differently in our world and involves powerful magical forces and the fate of Byzantine power in northern Europe.

As I said in the opening, from moment to moment, it’s quite clever and exciting. The characters and plot are interesting, and Ford has a lot to say about his alternate historical world and the magic therein. And yet, the whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts. I think the biggest problem is that the novel jumps from character to character early and then from storyline to storyline later on. The central plot takes some time to become clear, and I never felt like I had a strong narrative thread to grab onto that would pull me through all the details. In the end, I got overwhelmed in the details instead. I’m a historian, but even I don’t care as much as Ford about the intricate politics of Richard III’s career. Ford clearly knows this world, but it never came as alive for me as Stephenson’s Baroque cycle (reviews forthcoming in 2011ish!) or Moorcock’s Gloriana. And that’s a shame, because it’s evident that Ford had a lot to offer.

Grade: B-

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