John M. Ford’s 1983 The Dragon Waiting is a World-Fantasy-Award-winning standalone alternate-history fantasy.
Byzantium prevails! True, centuries ago a huge swath of western Europe slipped out of the imperial grasp. But the vampire-dominated empire is patient and it is again expanding westward, slowly and inexorably.
Interminable factional war between and within Italian city states makes Italy an attractive target for the Byzantines. Easy enough to exploit rivalries and orchestrate assassinations of such leaders as might effectively oppose them. The di Medici are obliterated and Florence falls with them.
Medici doctor Cynthia Ricci flees before she can be killed. Her flight takes her west, past the border between Byzantium-dominated Europe into English-ruled Europe. Safety is an illusion, however, because English Europe is high on Byzantium’s to-do list.
In the past, English kings were strong enough to hold a considerable chunk of what is now France. Now the English realm is divided between York and the remnants of Lancaster; civil war rages. This is opportunity for the Byzantines; they can help one side win, if that side is willing to ally with the empire. Poor odds that the resulting government would be independent and not mere a puppet of Byzantium, but ambitious men are very good at kidding themselves.
Standing between another Byzantine victory and English independence under Richard III are Cynthia and three unlikely allies:
- Welsh mage Hywel Peredur,
- Greek mercenary (and possibly the rightful heir to the Byzantine throne1) Dimitrios Ducas,
- and German engineer and vampire Gregory von Bayern.
I have not read this in decades. This time I was savvy enough to notice that while the grand outlines of history had been rearranged (Julian the Apostate prevented Christian takeover of the empire, which then prevented the rise of Islam, the Crusades, and the fall of Byzantium), the same great historical figures of our timeline appear on stage right on schedule. It might seem silly to complain about this aspect of the setting when I take magic and vampires perfectly in stride … but I’m a reviewer and I can complain if I want to2.
(Also, as someone whose ancestors hail from Scotland and Ireland, I am not one hundred percent invested in the English cause.)
Ford loved to write dense narratives in which there are no infodumps whatsoever. Characters don’t say anything to each other that they wouldn’t say in the ordinary course of things. This can leave readers utterly at sea. Have no fear: whereas in 1983, when this was first published, readers were on their own, the readers of 2020 can consult this handy concordance as they read.
Even if the reader has little grasp of European history or Shakespeare or the Arthurian canon or any of the other sources on which Ford is riffing (and so cannot appreciate Ford’s allusions, inversions, and witty narrative games), this story still stands on its own. The characters at the heart of it are engaging enough one does not have to understand the minutiae of Ford’s reimagined Europe to care whether or not the characters survive their part in the unfolding drama.
1: Except there isn’t even the smallest chance that he will ever realize the family ambition of retaking the throne. He’s definitely enough of a potential threat to warrant being sent to the frontier or perhaps murdered.
2: I wonder what happened to the Mongol Empire and the Black Death? A thriving Byzantine Empire seems like an irresistible target for the Mongols.