Review: The Dragon Waiting, by John M. Ford
WARNING - THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.
Hoo, boy, there is a lot happening in this book.
This is an alternate historical fantasy, in which Christianity never became the accepted faith of the Roman Empire and so Europe ended up split between Byzantium and England, and a few warring city-states in Italy, and how the four main characters - a Welsh wizard, a Florentine doctor, a Byzantine mercenary and a German vampire - come together to make sure that Richard III ends up as King of England in order to provide some kind of Are you hooked yet? Because that premise pulled me in within approximately 2.5 seconds (I don't think I even finished reading the blurb before I added this book to my Bookshop cart).
The first thing I will say is this book needed to be a series, or 350 pages longer, to do any bit of it full justice.
As I was reading this book, I got an awful lot of Dorothy Dunnett flashback vibes - John M. Ford has that same writing style of setting everything out, putting everything you need in subtext and innuendo, and letting the reader pick up what they will and piece it all together themselves. I do think though that Dunnett does it slightly better - she gives everything the space it needs, even the little details, and still takes the time at the end of the novel to pull it all together, which I, as a stupid reader, appreciate. Ford puts everything out there, but because he's so limited on time and page count, he skips over dialogue and detail and stretches of time, and ends the novel before everything pulls together. I know there are readers who really enjoy the "show not tell" writing style - I am one of them, dear reader! I love when I have to hunt and puzzle out for my stories instead of having everything handed to me on a plate (looking at you, Signe Pike) - but there does need to be a smidgen of telling, even if just to wrap everything up. At least it does for me. And it was just so rushed - each section is I think meant to cover anywhere from two to five years, and centers a different intrigue in different parts of Europe. I would have loved to spend more than 80 pages on each of those plots, but it just moved too fast and the chronology was a bit too condensed to really, properly sink into any of the intrigues.
Second thing that annoyed me - no one fucking died. I realize that's a weird thing to be annoyed about, but look - I am a worshipper at the Altar of Dorothy Dunnett and I was a religious watcher of Game of Thrones until they went totally off the rails in Series 7-8 and stopped killing enough people. But all four of the main characters make it through the entirety of the novel relatively unscathed, after surviving at minimum 4 near-death experiences each. Cynthia drinks poison and gets shot at and survives miraculously each time; Dimi gets shot at, is attacked by a vampire, gets pneumonia, and then is speared in the side and survives each time with NO INJURIES TO SPEAK OF; Gregory keeps trying to kill himself and keeps being interrupted by some truly convenient messengers. Hywel is I think immortal, though that was never made clear (at least not to yours stupidly). Come on, John. Not only is this completely implausible (and yes, I know this story has vampires, but come ON) but it kind of took away the stakes of the story for me - I knew everybody was going to survive the final battle, so I found it hard to be invested in this retelling of Bosworth Field.
Having said all that - I really did enjoy this book. I enjoyed hunting through the dialogues and figuring out how the great big chess game was playing out, and how all the characters slotted into their different intrigues. I also loved picking up on the echoes and the way Ford changed history from the timeline we actually have, and finding the parallels between this book and other novels (seriously - the House of Niccolo series was strongly hinted at in this book) that Ford drew inspiration from. I love any thought experiment of alternate history novels, and this does that perfectly; crafting an alternate world that feels as vividly imagined and richly real in its details and narrative arc as this one does. The characters were also really well done, and there are a lot of them - for all of the characters to feel like real people, three-dimensional and nuanced and complex and layered, is quite an authorial feat.
If you want to read what is basically a Dunnett first draft with vampires instead of stupid divining, then this is the book for you - and as long as you go into it expecting it to feel a bit unfinished, or a bit cramped, then you won't be disappointing. This was a fun read for me and I'm just a bit sad there aren't more to flesh out the story a bit.