Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al
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Book: The Dragon Waiting

Author: John M Ford

Details: (c) 1983 John M Ford; Pub Corgi 1985; ISBN 0-552-12557-1

Verdict: The Dragon Waiting is simultaneously highly enjoyable and very confusing.

Reasons for reading it: rysmiel recommended it.

How it came into my hands: lethargic_man lent it to me, albeit a bit reluctantly since he's not keen on it himself.

It's very difficult to describe The Dragon Waiting at all. It's basically an alternate history account of the accession of Richard III. Except that doesn't really give much of an impression of what sort of book it is. It has wizards and dragons and vampires and stuff, but it doesn't really behave like typical fantasy. It's hard to put my finger on what's so unusual about it. I think in essence it's that tDW doesn't draw attention to the magical elements. Magic and the supernatural are woven into the background absolutely seamlessly, there's almost no exposition or even incluing. The story focuses on the people who live in the world they're in and take magic for granted. It's a bit like reading, say, a nineteenth century Russian novel in translation; you probably pick up bits about Russian social history and politics, but the point of the book isn't to explain these things, because the intended audience would have taken the background for granted.

The background, even though it's never really described directly, is what's really amazing about tDW. Everything fits together absolutely perfectly, the magic, the geopolitical scene, the religion. And it's set across more or less the whole of Europe, but manages to give each country its individual flavour, as well as regions and different social strata fitting into that. And the way that the alternate reality stuff is so closely interwoven with real history. (I don't know as much about 15th century Europe as I probably should, because last time I studied that period was in primary school, meaning that I have very basic general knowledge about English history and a lot of ignorance about the rest of the world.)

Anyway, the two major historical changes are that a civilization which considers itself the continuation of the Roman empire is still strong in the east, and there is no dominant religion, just a lot of local cults without much political influence. The whole setup works incredibly well; I could really believe I was reading the history of a genuine world, a real fork on the timeline. As a small example, when this world's equivalent of Christians are first introduced, my hair was standing on end from how different the situation was from what I was expecting, and from how cleverly everything is fitted together. I also completely adore the way vampirism fits into the picture. Just wow.

The main focus of the actual story is political intrigue, and it's intrigue almost on the scale of Dumas. The trouble is, I've reached the end of the book and I have very little more idea than when I started who was on which side, who was double- and triple-crossing whom, and why anybody acted the way they did. Eventually, I just gave up trying to understand what was going on, and related to the book as a series of scenarios set in a very, very cool background. Like the kind of themed short story collection where the same characters show up in different situations, sometimes as protagonist and sometimes as a minor character.

The weird thing is, despite having very little idea what was going on on a whole book scale, I was completely absorbed in the immediacy of each scene. I think the opening three chapters, introducing Hywel, Dimitrios and Cynthia are the most successful part of the book. Partly because I'm more relaxed about not knowing what's going on when the scene is first being set. I was fascinated by the three of them as characters and the three very different backgrounds they came from. The rest of the novel didn't quite live up to the promise of those openings though, partly because Hywel suddenly jumped from a dangerously curious child to a mysterious old wizard, while Cynthia was thrown straight into the action without any time for character development.

I do understand why lethargic_man dislikes this book. A lot of the time I was left thinking, but why on earth would they do that?! It's as if the narratorial voice is either completely tone deaf to character, or has such an intuitive understanding of how people tick that it doesn't seem worth explaining anything. I kind of suspect the second, because despite being really confused by a lot of the characters' decisions, I did very much believe in them as people and cared a lot about their fate.

In many ways reading tDW felt like watching a film, not because it's particularly visual (it really isn't at all), but because there isn't the sort of background and explanation that I normally expect from novels. As when I watch films, I couldn't keep all the minor characters straight in my head, and I couldn't properly follow the threads of the plot. Now, in films the problem is that the extra information is being provided in the form of images, and I'm just bad at extracting information from images. But with tDW it's more like the information isn't there in the first place. Or knowing what's going on relies on knowing a lot of history that I might recognize if it were stated explicitly but which I'm not familiar enough with to pick up on subtle allusions.

The other thing about tDW is a truly bizarre sense of humour. Things like characters randomly hacking Tolkien, which threw me out of the story as much as an actor winking at the audience. But it did also make me chuckle.
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