Tor Books has published a new edition of The Dragon Waiting, John M. Ford’s 1983 masterpiece of alternate-history fantasy—and a book that took fourteen years to return to print, after the author’s untimely death threw his creative legacy into disarray. I heard the news from a tweet by Andrew Plotkin, who sold it to my mood quite tidily:

Well, I enjoyed it a great deal, even though I spent much of my time struggling to follow the action. Zarf’s “strange, meandering, oblique” politely understates the book’s structure, a series of concisely presented but obscurely related adventures happening over the lifetimes of its four protagonists. Their story-threads gather and separate and re-entwine with a vast gallery of other characters with varying connections to history. And across all this time their motivations shift for uncertain reasons, and sometimes without their conscious knowledge. But I found Ford’s prose deliciously readable—and, as we shall see, I had some additional help.

The novel starts off graspably enough, in a YA-fiction mode, exploring the childhood traumas that drive two of its protagonists. Their simplified viewpoint helps make clear, at the outset, the world they inhabit: a fairly recognizable 15th-century Europe, albeit one where Christianity never quite took root. The Byzantine Empire has not just avoided collapse but has become a rapacious world power, rolling right over Italy’s independent states and chomping its way westward. Magic exists, too, of the kind that I prefer in my fantasy fiction: expensive magic, where wizards are rare, weave their spells subtly, and always at terrible cost.

And then the third protagonist stars in a tale of court intrigue and spy-hunts in Medici-era Florence, and the fourth debuts in a two-part locked-room murder mystery set in a blizzard-bound inn. At its resolution, the motley company—a Greek soldier, a Welsh wizard-scholar, an Italian surgeon (and vampire killer), and a German artillery engineer (and vampire)—commence a series of chapter-length episodes no less diverse in tone than those that came before. It all somehow culminates at the Battle of Bosworth Field, where the four all assist in concluding the Wars of the Roses Dragons. Each winds up getting the thing they sought, even if none really get what they wanted. It’s just that kind of book.

Zarf, ever-humble, did not name another reason to read The Dragon Waiting today: his own Draco Concordans, an exegesis of Ford’s novel which he assembled as a densely intra-linked website in the late 2000s. I happened to know of this project’s existence—being coincidentally present for its creation—and so dove into the novel in part out of a desire to finally enjoy this work of Plotkin’s that I’ve heretofore declined to read. As its own front page states, after all, it assumes its audience to have already read The Dragon Waiting at least once, with no plot details left to spoil.

I cannot lie: I only made it to the Florentine section of Waiting before, head spinning, I started peeking through the chapter-by-chapter analysis in Concordans. Happily, I found that Zarf wrote this with a much greater affordance to the spoiler-averse than his own warnings imply. Concordans, when read as a companion to Waiting in this way, avoids spelling out anything that someone reading the novel for the first time couldn’t piece together, given all the pages read so far. (I mean, theoretically, given also a preternatural level of attention and recall, and vast knowledge of real-world history.)

And so I interleaved my reading of text and commentary, flipping back and forth with each new chapter, and had a great time. I enjoyed it much as one might enjoy reading fan-theories or behind-the-scenes podcasts in between episodes of a new TV show. But in this case, the additional material all comes from one person who really put the work in, creating a thoroughly researched explainer pointing out all the subtle energies and easily-overlooked historical details that fill most every page of The Dragon Waiting.

Whether you read the two works as I did, or in the more pure one-then-the-other fashion that Zarf intended, or just let Ford’s word-sorcery carry you away unaccompanied, I recommend this serpentine experience.

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