Simon Bisson (sbisson) wrote,
Simon Bisson
sbisson

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The Tuesday Evening "I Really Should Be In Bed" Review: The Dragon Waiting

Some writers come up with the same thing again and again. Others rethink themselves with virtually every novel. John M Ford is most definitely one of the latter school, skating from SF to fantasy and back again (with a touch of poetry to leven the mix).

Starting with the proto-cyberpunk of Web of Angels, he's explored space opera in The Princes of the Air, written two of the best Star Trek novels (The Final Reflection and How Much for Just the Planet), done wonderful gaming scenarios in the shape of Paranoia's Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues, reworked the Heinlein juvenile with Growing up Weightless (which has the feel of growing up in one of William Barton's interstellar dystopias), moved the Borderlands to Chicago with a touch of ER in The Last Hot Time, written my favourite alternate history (without any alternate histories) short story "The Road to Mandalay". Let's face it, if I really thought about it, I should just give up trying to write SF, as there's no way I could even hope to tread in his footsteps...

And today I find myself wondering why I have waited so long before reading his 1983 fantasy The Dragon Waiting. It almost feels that I've wasted twenty years pussy footing around, looking at it on bookshop shelves or in the myriad stacks of Hay-on-Wye, but all the time just not buying it. It never felt "right", it never was "the time". But its time finally came...

The Dragon Waiting is a fantasy only slightly twisted away from our world. Yes, magic works, but the cost is so high that it has little effect on the politics and intrigues that sweep Europe. It's also an alternate history - Byzantium still rules southern Europe, and Christianity is just another Nazarene cult. In England a king is dying, and the Byzantine claws are looking to claim another throne. All rests on four shoulders: an Italian doctor fleeing the fall of her city state, a rebel Roman now mercenary, a German military engineer (and vampire), and a Welsh wizard. They must unravel plots, end rebellions, and stave off wars to make sure the right man becomes England's next king: Richard III.

Ford juggles so much here, the alternate history, the world we know, and his complex politics, that sometimes you wonder how he keeps all those balls in the air. But we're watching a master at play here, and we know that everything will fit into wonderful patterns, once we let him get on with the show. And he gives us spectacle, as we follow intrigue through Italy, Switzerland and France before we finally reach England and Wales. The story dances around the borders again and again, borders as geography, as political fiction, as artificial walls we put between each other. It is the border that carries the story on, the metaphor that catapults us to Richard's eventual throne, despite the dragon waiting in the cold of the Welsh mountains and the heat of Byzantium itself...

It's no wonder that this won the 1984 World Fantasy Award. Put up against any 21st century fantasy novel, and there's a good chance that it would win all over again. Actually, thinking about it a day or so after finishing it somewhere between Bond Street and Notting Hill Gate, I'd have to say that The Dragon Waiting is one of the best fantasy novels I've ever read.

As David Lynch so succinctly put it in Twin Peaks: Damn Fine.
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