The Dragon Waiting
by John M. Ford
1984 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel
Historical fantasy always strikes me as a little goofy. Inherent to the concept is the idea that even with the additional of magical forces and strange beats that the things would still turn out almost exactly like they did in the real world. The same people would be in charge; there are no sudden deaths, marriages to different people, or policies enacted by past rulers that change things before the novel. It's ludicrous if you look at it too closely.
On the other hand it's a lot of fun to see Julius Caeser fighting an army of giant spiders.
So I accept the genre convention that even with wizards and other dramatic changes running around that things will still be pretty much the same.
The big changes in The Dragon Waiting (besides the addition of wizards) is that Byzantium never fell and that as an outgrowth of Roman policy toward religions in their conquered territories there is a very open religious freedom. That has resulted in a society where hundreds of beliefs overlap, run together, and few hold them very deeply. The "dark ages" still occurred but their impact is lessened and technology seems very slightly ahead of where it was at the end of the fifteenth century (personal firearms are more common, medicine seems closer to late renaissance).
Byzantium is an expansionist empire that has de facto control over the majority of Europe. They scheme to take most of Italy and a young female doctor to the Medici family is forced to flee. A chance encounter with a wizard, a deposed prince, and a vampire on a snowy evening sets them against the Empire's plans to destabilize England. They join forces with Richard III to stop the empire from taking England from behind the scene.
Near-miss is how I would describe this book. The plot attempts to provide an epic story about changing politics and while it comes close to doing it well it doesn't quite succeed. The characters offer moments of interest however in the end it feels like there's something missing. The concepts thrown around in the novel are interesting and yet they weren't explored well enough for me. The Dragon Waiting could have really used another two hundred pages to flesh everything out (I can't believe I just said that).
The plot is made more complicated than it needs to be by Ford shoe horning in but not adequately explaining the real-world history of end of the fifteenth century England. If I had not known some of the details of Edward IV and Richard III's lives then there are some segments of the novel where I would have been completely lost. Even then there were segments where I had to straighn my memory to think of why certain historical personages would be taking the actions they were. It doesn't help that many of the characters have extremely similar names which blurs the incidental people together.
The fictional characters that are used to drive the novel frustrated me in their vast swings. In individual scenes and moments they could be interesting but viewed as a whole there never seemed to be much in the way of transitional steps in their character development. One moment they're filled with angst the next they're not as the plot requires. It struck me as a binary state for their characterization and a bit more time to flesh out their development would have been appreciated.
I wanted to like The Dragon Waiting and as it stands there was a lot there to enjoy but I can only recommend it to someone who really likes the idea of a fantasy treatment of Richard III. I found it to be a solid effort that unfortunately just came up short.