Sunday, August 29, 2010

Fantasy Masterworks #29: John M. Ford, The Dragon Waiting

From Caemarfon to Chester the road remained, and at Caerhun in the Vale of Conwy there were pieces of walls and straight ditches left where the legionary fort had held the river crossing.  Roman stones, but no Romans; not for a thousand years.

Beyond Caehun the road would upslope for a mile, to an inn called The White Hart.  Hywel Peredur lived there in this his eleventh year, the nine hundred tenth year of Arthur's Triumph, the one thousand ninety-fifth year of Constantine's City.  This March afternoon, Hywel stood on the Roman paving below the innyard, and was King of the Romans. (p. 3)
In two recent reviews of SF Masterworks books posted elsewhere, Pavane and Bring the Jubilee,  I touched upon the pitfalls and rewards associated with the reading of alt-histories.  John M. Ford's 1983 alt-history, The Dragon Waiting, takes a different approach than those of Keith Roberts or Ward Moore.  Rather than concentrating on a single modern event and extrapolating a plausible alt-future or setting a story of intrigue and curiosity within such an alt-history, Ford's work perhaps is much more radical than just a simple reimagining of the past along plausible grounds.  With its magicians and vampires, perhaps The Dragon Waiting could be better described as an alt-reality in which fantastical elements co-exist with changes in the Earth's political history dating back to the mid-4th century CE.

In Ford's alt-reality, the Eastern Roman Empire never weakened.  Instead of failing and becoming known as Julian the Apostate, this Emperor succeeded in his attempt to stem the tide of Christianity within the Empire; in the 15th century (never called such, due to the failing of Christianity to become paramount in Europe) the former Western Empire and the Eastern Empire are both polytheistic societies, with Greco-Roman gods rubbing granite shoulders with Celtic and Norse deities in pantheons throughout European temples.  The Eastern or Byzantine Empire has begun a sort of reconquista in Central Europe, with the Anglo-Celtic England, now bearing the ancient Empire of the Romans moniker that the Holy Roman Empire managed to hold during the same time frame in "real" 15th century Europe, being the only major force opposing it.  There is but a few buffer states between these two pagan empires:  the German principalities, the Italian city-states, and a shrunken Kingdom of Gaul, ruled by King Louis XI, a Spider still despite the change of realities.

The action in The Dragon Waiting revolves around several characters in these locales.  From the exiled pretender to the Byzantine throne, Dimitrios Ducas, to the Welsh magician Hywel to the Florentine medic Cynthia Ricci to a German artilleryman, Gregory, who is afflicted with porphyria, the novel begins with leisurely examinations of life in quasi-15th century Europe.  We see how the addition of magic, as wielded by Hywel and others, has influenced the course of events in the British isles.  We also encounter much that is very familiar to those readers who are familiar with late medieval European social and political history:  the reign of the Medicis in Florence, the machinations of the Sforza in Milan during the late 14th and early 15th centuries, the squabbling of the proto-mercantilist German states organized in an analogue of the Hanseatic League, as well as references to the Wallachian Vlad the Impaler and other nefarious figures.  These real historical characters, existing now in an alternate reality, serve to ground the narrative to an extent, but they also underscore some of the weaknesses inherent in having an alt-history include so many connections to our shared reality.

Are leaders shaped by their times or do they shape times?  That age-old question seems to be answered with the latter possibility in Ford's novel.  After all, Christian or pagan, the Medicis are reigning, Louis XI is still the Spider, and the Lancasters and Yorks are still battling over the Plantagenet lineage (despite a paucity of hints that there was even a Battle of Hastings four centuries before).  For some, this might make it easier to follow the story, particularly in the second half of the novel, when the four main characters mentioned above manage to have their narrative arcs intertwine.  For others, and I am one of them, there is too much predictability in the narrative once the characters are united and they are then encouraged to remove themselves post haste to England to help settle a new variation on the War of the Roses element, the one of 1482 dealing with Edward IV, his brother Richard of Gloucester, and two little princes who may not be in the Tower of London.

Sometimes a reader can know "too much," especially when it comes to reading alt-histories or alt-realities.  This was certainly the case for me in reading The Dragon Waiting.  Although Ford is not a poor prose writer, there really is not anything spectacular about his writing; he describes events in a workman-like fashion and the plot pieces just fall, one-two-three, finis.  The slightly-altered historical personages and Ford's invented protagonists do not mesh well together and there is nothing convincing about the dialogue that takes place.  Although the question of the "dragon" may be of interest to some readers, it failed to have much of an impact with me.

Overall, The Dragon Waiting is an adequate alt-reality novel.  For those who want to reimagine late medieval/early modern European history, perhaps the story's merits will outweigh its deficiencies.  But for those who want intriguing characters to go along with the alt-history plot, for the most part they will be disappointed with this novel.  There just aren't enough compelling historical scenes, such as those described in Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee, or character interactions with their alt-pasts, as is found in Keith Roberts' Pavane, for The Dragon Waiting to be anything else but a solid but unspectacular work that fails to be on the level of several "masterworks" reviewed here in recent weeks.

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