Jul 30 2009 4:54pm

Subtly twisted history: John M. Ford’s The Dragon Waiting

It’s so easy to talk about how clever The Dragon Waiting is that it’s easy to lose sight of what good fun it is, so I wanted to start with this. It’s a brilliantly written, absorbing book with great characters; it’s hard to put down once it gets going; and it’s laugh aloud funny in places. This is John M. Ford’s World Fantasy Award-winning masterpiece, and it really is notably brilliant. It’s a historical fantasy that plays games with history. I suppose lots of historical fantasies and alternate histories play games with history, but most of them are playing tic-tac-toe while The Dragon Waiting is playing three-dimensional Go.

It’s a Richard III book, though it takes a while to figure that out. Indeed, it takes a while to figure it out at all, because the first part that introduces the three main characters seems like the beginning of three different books, set in three different worlds. The wizard Hywel Peredur lives in a post-Roman Wales, the boy Dimitrios Ducas lives in a Gaul reconquered by Byzantium, and the doctor Cynthia Ricci lives at the Renaissance court of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Yet this is all one world and the three of them meet up with Gregory von Bayern, a vampire gun-maker, at an inn in an Alpine mountain pass, and go on together to work against Byzantium’s designs for reconquering Britain, and suddenly we are into the reality of the Wars of the Roses, the plotting nobles, the princes in the tower, vampires, wizards, Henry Tudor with Byzantine backing, exploding guns, dragons, witches, ciphers, poisons, and intrigue.

The world is an alternate history where Julian the Apostate lived to ensure no one faith had priority over any other, and everyone is largely pagan. I don’t think anyone else has written a feudal world without Christianity that I’m convinced by, nevermind medieval Europe, so this in itself is a major achievement. Justinian and Theodora became vampires, and held onto and consolidated Belisarius’ reconquest of half of Italy, going on to divide up France between themselves and the English crown. Now they’re mopping up the rest of Italy.

Real-world Byzantium fell in 1453. It’s hard to feel all that sorry the alternate world counterpart is trying to swallow up all of Europe fifty years after that, which makes them an interesting choice of bad guys. We never see them all that clearly, what we mostly see are the individuals manipulated by them, not Byzantium itself. Still, it makes a convincing menace.

I normally hate alternate histories where the turning point was hundreds of years before and yet there are characters with the same names and characters, but it doesn’t bother me at all here. I think I don’t mind it because Ford does it so perfectly, and not only that but he knows the history and geography so well that he never puts a foot wrong. There are very few books written by Americans and set in Britain (and only this one in Wales) where the geography works and the scale of the landscape feels right. (Similarly, I’d never dare set anything in the US.) Ford knows the real history well enough that it sits up and does tricks for him.

Similarly, if there’s one thing that puts me off a book it’s vampires. Yet The Dragon Waiting has a major vampire character and a plot and backstory that rely on vampires. It helps that they’re not sexy, or attractive, it helps that they’re much more like heroin addicts and that Gregory is using animal blood as methadone. Most of all, it helps that it doesn’t have vampires because vampires are cool, but because vampires are necessary. At least it doesn’t have any pirates. (But perhaps Ford could have made me like pirates, too. He made me almost like a Star Trek novel, after all.)

The characters are wonderful, all the way through. The book gives you time to get to know them and then uses them in precise ways, so you feel they’re doing exactly what they would do. This is true even of minor characters. It also uses Arthurian motifs to underscore the story, without ever getting tangled up in them. Part of the satisfaction of re-reading a complex book like this is seeing the mechanism, knowing what’s going to happen and seeing the inevitability of each action. It’s surprisingly hard to do that with this—it’s hard to hold onto. It’s as if in twisting the tail of history Ford could somehow manage to twist his own tale and make it come out differently.

What a good book this is, what an enjoyable read, and how incredibly clever. I love it.

It’s not likely to have a US reprint soon, so I’d grab this attractive Gollancz “Ultimate Fantasies” edition while it’s available.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Kate Nepveu
1. katenepveu
The pb cover in this post is not so great; the linked cover is okay; but my favorite is the cover for the first edition hardcover, seen at LibraryThing.

One of these days I am going to sit down with paper and pencil and try and make sense of the inn section. I keep thinking I've understood it and then fetching up against, well, not.

When I think of this book I think of the power of understatement. There's a bit where a character says (paraphrased, ROT13'ed for spoilers: "svaq zr fbzrguvat gb chyy gurfr anvyf") that just sticks with me for my moment of realization.

Great book.
2. DemetriosX
I love this book. It's been ages since I read it and once my books finally get across the Atlantic, it will be pretty high on my re-read list. I remember buying it solely on the basis of Ford's many short stories in Asimov's, none of which really prepared me for what I got. This book may also have made me a Ricardian.

Maybe one of the reasons the vampires don't annoy you here is that they are still pre-Rice vampires. They have, to a small degree, begun to shift away from the earlier models of Lugosi, Lee, and Schreck, but they aren't the languid, homoerotic, overtly sexual beings that they have since become. (The only other vampires I can think of that fall into this interstitial space are those from George R.R. Martin's Fevre Dream. Barbara Hambly's vampires come close, though they are several steps closer to "Rice-space".) In the last 25-30 years, vampires have altered in ways that make them almost unrecognizable to those who knew then as they once were. Several years ago, somebody looked at what Anne Rice had turned vampires into and asked, "Who wouldn't want to be one of these vampires? Where are the disadvantages?" Ford's vampires are definitely not like that, especially Justinian and Theodora.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
Kate: Yes, that's a wonderfully understated moment.

I also very much like the bit where Gregory describes the vampire-harming properties of the special bullets in his modified gun and then after firing it says "I did not mention the phosphorus filling because I was not certain that it would work."
Ian Tregillis
4. ITregillis
I just finished this novel last night, coincidentally enough. I wasn't very far into it before realizing I'll need to reread it again at some point-- at most I absorbed only a fraction of it. It seems to be a book that rewards (demands?) careful attention, but because of real life issues I had to try to read this in 5-minute increments before dozing off each night. Which was a shame, because I could see that Ford was doing something really nifty and really complex, but I couldn't appreciate it.

(My utter ignorance about the historical period may have also been a factor.)
Andrew Mason
5. AnotherAndrew
I think that fantasy alternate history can get away with more than straight alternate history, because it's possible to imagine that there's some kind of magical power keeping the world on track. This is an advantage - while straight alternate history is limited to asking 'what would have happened if....?', fantasy alternate history can ask 'what would Richard III have been like in a world where....?', ignoring the fact that he wouldn't have existed in such a world.
Clifton Royston
6. CliftonR
As Kate says above, there are brief sections of the novel where it requires an extraordinary degree of attention to figure out exactly what is going on. (Yes, the inn scene for sure, and there is a fairly long stretch of important dialogue near the end where it requires serious focus just to figure out which lines belong to who.)

I think I did understand what was going on at the inn after reading that section twice on my last reread, but it's now been long enough I don't remember the details. The problem for the casual speed-reader is that the players in the situation are all exceptionally intelligent, and the consequences are not dumbed down, so the dialogue works somewhat as if Sherlock Holmes were discussing things with Mycroft and his other two smarter brothers, rather than patiently explaining the bleedin' obvious to Watson.

But it repays the readers' attention in spades; the ideas and content of this novel could been dribbled out over a lesser writer's entire career. (Trying to avoid spoilers, but one portion of the novel could be considered as something of a reply to Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time.)

Jo @ 3: That's one of my favorite lines, too; it so perfectly fits his character.
7. EmmetAOBrien
A truly brilliant novel, and possibly my single absolute favourite; it's on the fairly short list of things I do not let myself reread too often. I cannot think of a single one of the giddying list of elements included in it that is not absolutely essential to making the thing work as a whole.

I'd also like to include a link to Andrew Plotkin's wonderful Dragon Waiting concordance which elucidates many of the less overt allusions and references in the book.
8. EmmetAOBrien
A truly brilliant novel, and possibly my single absolute favourite; it's on the fairly short list of things I do not let myself reread too often. I cannot think of a single one of the giddying list of elements included in it that is not absolutely essential to making the thing work as a whole.

I'd also like to include a link to Andrew Plotkin's wonderful Dragon Waiting concordance which elucidates many of the less overt allusions and references in the book.
Ian Tregillis
9. ITregillis
@ 8:

Wow-- thanks for posting the concordance. What a terrific resource. I'll keep it handy when I attempt a closer reading.
Liza .
10. aedifica
This may have been the first Ford novel I read, and I think I really didn't know how to read a Ford novel yet. I could tell something important was going on, but I couldn't tell what. (My severe lack of medieval and Renaissance history didn't help either.) Since then I've read it two or three times, and I think I finally understood it the last time--not that there won't be even more there for me the next time I read it, of course. And come to think of it, it says something for the book that I would go back and re-read it multiple times for enjoyment even though I was confused by it.

EmmetAOBrien @ 7, 8: Thanks for the link to the concordance!

More generally: Just over a year ago I read The Scholars of Night, and it immediately became my favorite of his books, and one of my favorite books overall! The Last Hot Time is very good also (though it took two or three readings for me to notice what was really going on at the end).
Andrew Ty
11. eldritch00
I really really want to read The Scholars of Night and The Dragon Waiting, but I'm a bit wary given my knowledge gap with regard to, respectively, Christopher Marlowe and the War of the Roses. I'm worried about not doing the novels justice with my limited knowledge.

That said, once again, I find myself excited. Maybe I'll look for copies, buy them, try and read them, and see what happens from there!
Jo Walton
12. bluejo
Eldritch00: I think if you read Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time it would give you all the Wars of the Roses context you need. I certainly read this the first time without any more context than that -- though I did have lots of Roman/Byzantine context.

It's a book where you have to pay attention, but not a difficult book.
scott hhhhhhhhh
13. wsp_scott
This sounds like another winner from you.
Just ordered it, and my reading list gets longer :)
Kate Nepveu
14. katenepveu
I think if you read Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time it would give you all the Wars of the Roses context you need.

I can certainly say that when I read _Daughter_ *after* _The Dragon Waiting_ the weight given to certain events in _TDW_ suddenly made a lot more sense.
Clifton Royston
15. CliftonR
Ditto the thanks for the concordance; I had found that once and then forgotten about it. I have to write Andrew because I think I know the answer to one of the few remaining points which was mystifying him.
16. wraeththu
Thanks for yet another recommendation that I ordered straightaway from Amazon. You have put a serious dent in my plastic credit card this year! But I'm discovering some truly excellent novels in the process.

Which segues to something off-topic: I recently read--and loved—"Lifelode." It caught me up in its spell so much that when events came to a boil mid-book, I couldn’t stop reading until I finished it. I wish the book were getting more press attention so that readers could discover the pleasures it offers them. Hopefully the year-end recaps will feature it prominently, as well as award nominations, which it eminently deserves. Another great one, Jo!
17. Shireling
I skipped over the discussion b/c have not read this yet. Is there a new edition available in Canada? TIA.
Jo Walton
18. bluejo
Shireling: No. The Gollancz UK edition is the only one in print, or likely to be in the near future.
Pat Knuth
19. Laina
Shireling, if you look at the link for the UK edition, there's a link for The Book Depository, and they say they offer free shipping worldwide.
Maiane Bakroeva
20. Isilel
While this is a well-written book, I just couldn't get over the absurdity of War of the Roses happening in such a different situation and all the historical characters being around ditto. I mean, why? Why break the suspension of disbelief so badly and so unnecessarily? Why make the plot so implausible?

Byzantium that flourished and became dominant (and remained pagan) is certainly a very interesting concept that deserves attention. And there are many points in it's history where the things could be reasonably spun in that direction.

Ditto War of the Roses with magic and vampires. Not as interesting to me personally perhaps, but a worthy concept.

But the combination just made me go "Huh? Say what?" and IMHO prevented both ideas from fulfilling their promise. I even felt that Ford initially may have had 2 different novels in mind and then decided to mash them together for some inexplicable reason. YMMV.
21. Mary Frances
The Dragon Waiting is back? Alleluia! Jo, thank you for this post--I don't care if it is in the UK only; I've wanted a new edition of this book for years.
22. Andrew Plotkin
Emmet and everybody, thanks for the nice comments about the concordance site. And for elucidating comments -- I *will* be updating the site after Worldcon, to catch up with the email that you've been sending me. (I'm hoping that the JMF panel at Worldcon will also turn up some fresh ideas.)
23. NickPheas
Not read it in ages, but it's wonderful.

The one thing I always wondered though, and will never get a chance to ask JMF: Is it a novelisation of a roleplaying game?

Most game novelisations are awful, though Fiest seems to have built a successful career on it, but if anyone had the ability to write a good one it would have been him.
Henry Troup
24. htroup
My favorite term from TDW: hematophagic anemia - a medical diagnosis for vampirism.

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