John M. Ford’s The Dragon Waiting is a brilliant reshuffling of fantasy tropes and alternate history but at heart also a beautiful study of a group of extraordinary characters. First published in 1983, this is the first of Ford’s novels to be republished since his death in 2006 when, apparently because no one could trace his heirs, all his work went out of print. Thankfully, that mess was cleared up and now we’ll be getting new editions. The Dragon Waiting must be one of the best products of Ford’s intricate imagination. I loved it.
This story starts with chapters describing three very different characters in different parts of 15th century Europe. But this is a Europe in which the Byzantine empire picked up from the fallen western Roman empire as the dominant power on the continent, reaching deep into France. It stopped at lands controlled by the English, the major power not under its control. But Byzantium continues its plots to take over other kingdoms. It’s also a Europe without a powerful Christian church. Emperor Julian, known as the Apostate for his repudiation of Christianity in our reality, is here Julian the Wise for declaring that all religions were on an equal footing. Therefore, there are no great cathedrals but plenty of temples, and several prominent people in The Dragon Waiting are avid devotees of the cult of Mithras.
The novel can be jarring at first because it takes a while to see how the lives of characters who have no connection gradually come together. And just when the story seems ready to tell you how that happens, Ford pulls an apparently new group of characters together to solve a murder. But these new people turn out to be our familiars in disguise. That’s the way Ford likes to complicate things.
First we meet young Hywel Peredur in his twelfth year, helping his family run an inn in the Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd. Everything changes when a group of English soldiers stop for the night with a prisoner, a wizard named Ptolemy, from Constantine’s great city. Hywel hears a voice in his head calling to him and knows it is the wizard. He goes to him and gets his first lesson in becoming a wizard himself, for he has the talent, as it’s called. The next day he learns that his uncle was the great mage, Owain Glyn Dŵr (Owen Glendower, if you remember Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I), confirming his sense that he must become a magician also. This section ends with Hywel helping Ptolemy escape and getting one more terrifying lesson from him. We know that Hywel has left his home forever.
Then the story jumps to a part of France governed by Byzantium and meet a fifteen year-old boy, Dimitrios Ducas, son of the regional governor whose family once held the Emperor’s throne itself. Yet now this imperial family has been dispatched to a remote province of Gaul, and soon it becomes apparent that there is a plot afoot to destroy the Ducas line and prevent them from ever regaining the throne. After his father’s death, Dimitrios takes vengeance on the instigator of the plot, and the story leaves him alone, ready to escape by himself to parts unknown.
The third section introduces Cynthia Ricci, a doctor of Florence who has been tending, with her physician father, to the gravely ill Lorenzo de Medici. This part of Italy is under threat of Byzantine invasion with the help of the vampire, Duke Forza of Milan. The white-haired Cynthia and her father have been pressured into serving the purposes of a complex plot to destroy the Medici family, but she finally tells Lorenzo the truth and helps him by taking a message seeking aid from the Duke of Urbino. At the end of this chapter, she must flee, as spies and hostile forces close in on Florence. So this third young person sets out on her own.
These three seemingly unconnected characters, after the passage of several years, converge at an inn, each disguised in a new identity. They meet a fourth character, Gregory Von Bayern, a German doctor, weapons expert and vampire. A strange murder mystery unfolds at the inn, and gradually we see how the fates of these four intertwine in complicated plots. It all revolves around the succession of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, to the throne of England at the end of the Wars of the Roses and the machinations of those who would stop him. Since this is alternate history, though, don’t think you know how the story turns out.
The Dragon Waiting is quite exciting as it unfolds in one beautifully rendered scene after another, culminating in the great battle at Bosworth field. It takes a while to get to it, but there is a quite spectacular and unexpected sort of dragon waiting, as well as a great many vampires. Vampirism, after all, is a way to achieve immortality, and several of the historical characters we meet in this story turn out to have taken the disease voluntarily in order to cheat death. There are lots of jump-cuts, as Ford edits history into this strange but absorbing fantasy.
The novel repays a close reading just for that colorful adventure, but there is a lot more going on. Ford’s prose perfectly renders each scene, the whole building in intensity toward the climactic battle to decide the fate of Richard. For me it’s the strange encounters among the four key characters that compel my attention. There are so many beautiful moments of discovery and intimate encounters between people who possess the near immortality of wizards and vampires. They cannot have ordinary lives, but there are great scenes where they touch each other deeply nonetheless.
This is a world in which bonds of loyalty to power test friendship and love, and treachery is almost a norm that constantly overturns the reality we want to rely on. A certain kind of magic can disguise a face, but the person perceived by this trickery depends on the expectations of the one being deceived. Hywel, Dimitrios, Cynthia and Gregory are often torn between the paths they have chosen to follow and the direction their emotions and sense of rightness want them to take. Ford is masterful at subtle characterizations that give each scene much more depth than I have found in most fantasies. The Dragon Waiting is a great book written in Ford’s inimitable way – beautiful, complicated, exciting and full of intrigue and sleight of hand.