Our One True Guiding Light

The Princes of the Air — John M. Ford

Princes Of The Air

1982’s The Princes of the Air was John M. Ford’s second novel. His first novel, 1980’s Web of Angels (which I wish I had reviewed, because then I could link to the review) was a cyberpunk novel. The Princes of the Air was a space opera of manners. Ford’s reluctance to stick to a specific genre is only one of the reasons he is not better known.

Orden, David, and Theo had sufficient talents to have spent their lives working up to ever more complicated con games … that is, until the forces of the law fell on them and consigned them to whatever fate waits the criminal classes in a star-spanning empire. Orden evaded this fate by entering the diplomatic service, an alternative career path for those blessed with a gift of gab and an eye for a good con. His friends David and Theo parlayed practice on simulated, video-game starships into crewing the real thing.

Any prudent person in Orden’s position would have maintained a low profile in a minor position. Ambitious Orden brought himself and his friends to the attention of the Queen.

The empire’s unitary government is in many senses a polite fiction. Each world of the Empire has its own culture and agenda. Lacking anything akin to a unified and responsible government, governance is an on-going struggle between the bureaucrats and functionaries who serve the Queen, and the wealthy and powerful of the many worlds, who for the most part serve only themselves. The Queen herself is continually in danger. Pawns like Orden and his friends are mainly useful as expendables.

The empire does its best to ensure loyalty to the monarch, symbol of the central government. So far the Queen’s servants have been sufficiently canny and dedicated to maintain the monarchy. It is far from clear that this balance of power can endure.

Someone, or someones, have come up with a bold gambit to change the rules of the game. There is an obvious countermeasure, but it has not been put in place … because until now, no one has imagined this bold gambit. If unspecified villain or villains are successful, they will control the Empire.

Between the Queen and certain doom? Only a pawn named Orden….


If you search on Amazon for this book, you will find little evidence that this book ever existed. There are no copies, not even used copies, for sale; nobody has ever reviewed it on Amazon. Amazon lacks even price information on the book.

This may be due in part to the woeful fate of Ford’s literary estate. Ford’s blood kin, who inherited it, have been determined to erase all evidence of his career. But even before his death, Princes was fairly obscure. ISFDB lists only two editions, one in 1982 and one in 1991.

Given that critics and many influential fen have so much respect for his writing, why is this so?

A) As mentioned earlier, Ford avoided writing in the same genre two books running. His eight novels include a cyberpunk novel, a swashbuckling space opera, an alternate history/fantasy, two media tie-ins (one a sociological piece and the other a musical comedy in prose), a thriller, a coming-of-age SF novel, and an urban fantasy. It’s hard to build a reliable fan base while jumping from genre to genre.

B) Ford abhorred excessive exposition. He hated infodumps or anything that smacked of them. His books can be somewhat challenging to the less-than-mentally-agile. A fact well illustrated by this novel. The book’s characters comment on things that affect them personally (the political implications of the way the inhabited worlds are divided into two clusters1. the draconian indenture system, the Machiavellian diplomatic conventions). But information that they take for granted, information that is to them as water is to fish (how exactly FTL works, why the empire has an absolute monarchy, and so on) is never explained, because it would make no sense for Ford’s characters to embark on an “as you know, Bob.” Readers used to authors who explain things in painful, excessive detail might have come away from the novel scratching their heads. To them, it might seem that Ford crammed 600 pages of plot into a 200+ page book.

I *loved* this book. This was the novel that made me a Ford completist. I’d bounced off his earlier book, Web of Angels. I found this one a bit of a challenge (I couldn’t always follow the intricacies of the plot; a chess aficionado might have found it easier) but all the same, I thought the characters engaging and the final conflict enthralling. It would have been nice if there had been an appendix explaining the obscurities (as there was for the lunar rail system in Growing Up Weightless) but I always had the sense that Ford knew what was going on, even if he wasn’t telling me. The obscurities weren’t just vigorous hand waving.

The Princes of the Air is so out of print even Amazon cannot help. Search local and online used bookstores.

Feel free to comment here.

Please address corrections to jdnicoll at panix.com.

1: The division of the imperial worlds into near and far clusters stuck with me over the years. I have no idea why that in particular tickled my imagination, but it did.

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