Here is a fantasy novel that stands up through nearly three decades and still delivers. John M. Ford’s The Dragon Waiting won the World Fantasy Award in 1984, and 27 years later it still offers readers an intricate and compelling story with complex, believable characters.
Ford sets his alternate universe fantasy in what would have been our fifteenth-century Europe. Since Christianity never emerged as a world religion and the Byzantine Empire rules most of Europe and Asia, the years are numbered differently, something that confused me in the beginning. Ford uses a strikingly episodic structure that conjures, in the beginning at least, the feel of strangers on the road sharing stories in front of a crackling fire, over a pitcher of ale.
Hywel is a Welsh wizard. Dimitrious or Dimi is a deposed Byzantine prince, now working as a mercenary. Cynthia Ricci is a doctor who tended — and loved — Lorenzo de Medici, the banker of Florence. Gregory, the most enigmatic of the four, is a German scientist-engineer, specializing in ballistics and explosives, and a vampire. Vampires are tolerated in this world, if not particularly trusted, and we meet several in the course of the book.
The Dragon Waiting starts with three long sections telling us the stories of Hywel, Dimi and Cynthia. The omission of a story for Gregory is glaring and clearly labels him as a supporting player, although he is the most complex and valiant of the four.
The real story, though, begins in the second half of the book, in Britain, where our quartet makes its way. It’s the story of how Richard of York, Earl of Gloucester, becomes King Richard III. Ford chooses the historical Richard, not Shakespeare’s famous fictional villain. Britain is one of the few remaining free nations, and Byzantine agents scheme to control its leaders. Richard York is a third son, his mother’s “child of autumn,” not interested in kingship until events force his hand. Ford hews closely — a little too closely, given the other changes he has created — to the actual historical events. Friends and brothers betray each other, people are tricked, great houses change their allegiance and change it back again. Vampirism and magic add a layer of mystery and danger.
Ford has created a concrete and believable world, where war technology and medicine have both benefited from the influence of the east; where magic works but with often deadly consequences for the practitioner; and the human heart is still the biggest mystery. His characters are well developed, his four main characters particularly, but also Richard. Richard’s young nephew, Edward, one of the princes in the Tower, is heartbreakingly drawn in just a few scenes.
The King said, “My Lord Protector.” They all turned.
In a voice as hard and cold and clear as something carved from ice, Edward said, “Once I have learned properly to hate, Uncle, then will I truly be King?”
The magical system is intimated, though never fully explained. Ricci, the Florentine dottorina and mistress of disguises, is both a strong character and a strong woman whose actions have an impact on the events of the story.
The Dragon Waiting is not perfect. The structure is unsettling and the first section of Part Two, Companions of the Storm, is just too coincidental unless Hywel stage-managed it, and that is never even implied. Early in the book a character pokes Hywel in the eye. Later, we see him with a glass eye. Two hundred fifty pages later another character explains the meaning of both the original attack and the glass eye. This is a long time to be expected to remember what happened in the first chapter. Early in the Florentine section, Cynthia dissects a vampire for Lorenzo, although the reader does not actually see this. Later, she speaks about this with shame, but I never understood the purpose of the dissection in the first place.
Ford’s fixation with the actual events of history, on the other hand, undercuts some of the suspense. Dimi risks his life to rescue a prisoner and bring him across the Scottish border to Richard. It’s a powerful sequence, but history tells us how it will turn out. It would be difficult not to surmise what’s going to happen to the two princes, and once the wizard John Morton is taken to the dungeon, the next event is obvious to anyone who knows a little English history.
I spent most of the book thinking that the dragon of the title was a metaphor for Wales, but there is a literal dragon in the story, and it is worth the wait, so to speak.
This is a story about people facing real doubts and real conflicts, in a nuanced and detailed world that almost could have happened. Ford’s prose is clear rather than beautiful, with a few beautiful passages, and that is exactly the right choice for a story like this. There is a lot to enjoy here, a lot to feed your sense of wonder and a lot to learn about choices and power.