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One Society member uses The Dragon Waiting as the basis for a high-school study unit on history, fiction, and alternate realities. [go there]
Review: The Dragon Waiting
By John M. Ford
Reviewed by Kim Malo

What if?
It's at the heart of why we still talk and debate about Richard III and his world. John M. Ford's epic fantasy/alternate history takes that world and turns it upside down to provide some new what ifs, along with interesting answers to old questions. What if the Byzantine Empire was still alive and flourishing, stretching its fingers out to England - last barrier to dominating the West. What if THAT was a driving force behind some of the Lancastran plots, to help keep England divided. What if magic worked and vampires existed, loathed and feared, but also offering an undead alternative to dying of wounds or of disease. Speaking of magic, Morton is a wizard in this version of the tale, meeting a highly unpleasant end before he has a chance to provide More with the basis for his History. What if THIS treachery was why Hastings had to die and THAT childhood misunderstanding was why Richard distrusted Rivers personally, more than just as another Woodville. What if Edward IV's death wasn't natural either, but actually keyed to set off the confusion that followed. What if … what if… what if…

What if there was another answer to the most controversial' what if' of all - why the princes disappeared. What if it involved a very real reason that the princes could never be shown, dead or alive. And what if that reason made their disappearance necessary rather than any intent to seize the throne.

This isn't the book for traditionalists, looking for a strictly factual extrapolation focusing on what we know of Richard and his times. It's an epic tale, but not Richard's epic. He doesn't even appear until half way through the book, stomping travel stained into Cecily's London home with an engaging "Good evening, Mother! Time for rejoicing: despite the roads and London, the younger son is - " until he spies her elegant dinner guests with an entirely human "oh shit". Those guests - a wizard, a vampire, a doctor, and a mercenary - are the real protagonists of the story, brought together from across Europe by their opposition to the Byzantine Empire, which in turn ultimately brings them to Bosworth with Richard.

The author also admits to inventing and altering events, while providing his own interpretations of character - "especially that most reinterpreted of English kings." However, with some willing suspension of disbelief, it works as a believable story, even for people who know enough about the people and times to identify the inventions. The sweeping epic style and often lyrical writing make that willing suspension easy, creating a vivid and memorable world of depth and color, populated with living breathing characters you care about. Even when they aren't always the characters you think you know. Richard is consistent with most other portrayals that avoid the lunatic fringes of sainthood or capering evil. Fierce, intelligent, loyal, and a natural leader. Sitting beneath a portrait of his father, York has the stronger face but Richard is the one who burns with intensity. However that same passion and his innate loyalty lead to tragically wrong decisions about people here, as they seem to have in his life. Rivers, however, takes on a new character, and one more in sympathy with Richard than his own sister the queen, had misunderstandings not come between them. Clarence's inconstancy and weakness are there in all their glory, but he's also made sympathetic enough to believable as the frustrating but beloved brother for whom excuses will keep getting made. Argentine, Morton, Mancini, all have key roles to play, rather than being simply distanced chroniclers of events.

The story ranges widely. Along with places and historical characters well outside the usual canon -e.g. the Duke of Albany, Lorenzo di Medici, Savaronola, Villon- it blends in elements of Roman and Celtic mythology (Christianity is just another marginal cult), Arthurian romance, Mithraism, vampire lore, Byzantine and Italian history. The resulting richness helps make this a story to lose yourself in, but may well be the despair of Ricardians looking for a book that is primarily a discussion of the path to Bosworth.

The story opens with separate introductions to the wizard, the doctor, and the mercenary, and an appreciation for what the Empire has taken from them. They later meet on the road in a storm bound inn, where they are brought further together through trying to solve a murder mystery that seems to involve another guest there, obviously a vampire. Mystery apparently solved, the four of them decide to band together to at least try to stop the Empire. With so little unoccupied Europe left, independent England is the logical place for a stand. Getting there takes them through Byzantine France, where Margaret of Anjou is apparently involved in a plot of magic and treachery to stir things up through Clarence. Arriving in England sweeps them all up into the familiar events of Richard's life, fighting Scots on the borders and assorted enemies elsewhere, until Edward IV dies and the world changes. Richard gets control of his nephew from Rivers along with some unwelcome news about the boy's health, turning his world upside down anew. Subsequent events largely follow the snowballing spiral downward all too familiar to Ricardians. There are a few interesting twists, including a public announcement by Rivers about the princes' disappearance and an interesting source for information about the Eleanor Butler/Stillington situation. Magic and treachery are everywhere until the appearance of Henry Tydder brings things to a head at Bosworth, with the Empire ranged behind him and a dragon at his head.

This isn't always quick reading, with some dense, evocative prose and references that can be annoyingly elliptical. But there's also a broad sweep of rousing good storytelling spiced with wit and emotion and insight. It won the world fantasy award because it truly is a literate and imaginative piece of fantasy worldbuilding, quirky but rich. It's more fantasy than history, but even Ricardians who don't care for fantasy can read it for enjoyment of a different approach to the same old issues and the light that very different approach may shine on some well worn ideas about people and events. There's also a great deal of satisfaction in what happens to some of the known characters, even if the role of magic means it could only happen in this alternative world.

Note: The novel is out of print but widely available through used booksellers.

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