We open with a trick: John M. (Mike) Ford is laying out Byzantiums on a table, presenting them with conjurer’s flourishes, wiggling his eyebrows.
“Here you are, gentlefolk, now follow closely as I make arrangements. Keep your eyes on the real City of Constantine,” he says, shuffling them. Mike’s eyebrows have two modes, half-Gandalf and full-Gandalf, and they alternate like the levers of railway switches as he lays out the cities before you (or me; in fact let us assume as our frame of reference that “you” includes every entity in the universe who was not, is not, nor ever shall be Mike Ford). His fingers are a blur, but are they actors or distractors? Here come the Byzantiums, the jewels of the world, the cities they call The City.
The Byzantium where vampires and wizards are real. The Byzantium where Christianity was suppressed and Julian’s religious pluralism took permanent hold, where mystery cults such as that devoted to Mithras spread and sustained themselves. The Byzantium where Islam never developed to apply pressure from the south. The Byzantium where France never really became France, where Gaul was partitioned between the Empire in the east and England in the west. The Byzantium where Rome fell but the Empire kept the party going for another thousand years, at least.
Five Byzantiums, at a minimum, with the promise of more. Then Mike does something with his fingers, or possibly his eyebrows, and there’s only one Byzantium on the table.
“Damn,” you say. “Hell of a trick. All the same place. All those cities folded into one.”
“Cities?” he says.
You look down. Byzantium is gone. In its place are a few paragraphs on typing paper, some scribbled notes, a few thin lines of text scattered across the scuffed and dented surface of the table.
“Is that all there was?” you whisper. “To conjure a City, so many Cities, out of such threadbare stuff. That’s an incredible trick you just pulled.”
“Oh. Did I do that?” Mike’s eyebrows come down like awnings. He reaches out, gently taps a finger against the side of your head, and turns away smiling. “What an imagination you’ve got, kid.”
If there is such a thing as “the Velvet Underground album of 1980s fantasy novels,” you’re holding it. The Dragon Waiting, first published in 1983, was an instant cult artifact, a book that left fascination and puzzlement and awe in its wake. I hope at least one of those sensations overtakes you as you read it. In fact, I hope all of them overtake you, and stay with you, as they have with so many of us who have already gone down into the cave, felt the circle of fire, and learned a secret handshake or two. Don’t get me wrong; I shirk from insisting that you will love this book. No book ever written has the power to enforce such a guarantee. But I do promise that The Dragon Waiting is distinct. Singular. So very, very much its own damn thing, flirting openly with every genre fantasy tradition, going home with none of them at the end of the evening, yet somehow remaining on good terms with all of them.
It’s an alternate history, framed with deep knowledge of the setting, seeded with telling details and dense allusions. It’s a drily playful romanticization of that setting that still manages to keep one foot firmly on the ground. Grit is grit, danger is danger, the world has blood and disease and gravity in all the right places. It’s a mental tennis game, the Matter of Britain against the Mysteries of Rome, with William Shakespeare as a line judge. It’s got intrigue, assassins, conspiracies, meetings at taverns— the finest melodramatic cliches lovingly hand-painted and arranged for our delectation. It has a vampire gunsmith who gets all the best deadpan lines. Wait a minute. Vampire gunsmith … dead … pan. Unbelievable. It’s January of 2020 and that just hit me. Did Mike know what he was doing when he set that associative pun up nearly forty years ago? If anyone could have …
There are concepts, branching plots, and hefty what-ifs in The Dragon Waiting sufficient to give spines to half a dozen different novels, but in this one they all manage to dance together while leaving enough room between them for the holy spirits of several religions. That’s another Mike Ford thing; fill a world to bursting and leave it feeling tantalizingly under-explored. He was an eclectic wanderer, driven by one of the most disciplined whimsies (or perhaps whimsical disciplines) the field of speculative fiction has ever known. It wasn’t enough for his work to be about Something, it had to be about a bustling crowd of Somethings, and it wasn’t enough to squeeze them into the available space, even when that was impressive enough. The Somethings had to catalyze, they had to work visible and invisible wonders, they had to give off the narrative equivalent of Cerenkov luminescence.
When Mike sets a paragraph before you, you can feel an unseen, far-off stirring in the earth, something moving on other business. Double meanings are standard, triple meanings are a warm-up exercise. Mike was a poet, and everything he made had poetic density, serving as a load-bearing structure for substance in an unknowable number of dimensions.
Copyright © 1983 by The Estate of John M. Ford
Introduction copyright © 2020 by Scott Lynch