The Dragon Waiting - John M Ford
Another Fantasy Masterwork, this time from the pen of John M Ford, whose The Last Hot Time I read a year or so ago. However, this book could hardly be more different. No machine-gun-wielding elves in an alternate Chicago; this is an elegant bit of alternate history set in Renaissance Europe, in a universe where Christianity never rose and Byzantium never fell. Magic is still practised by a few rare wizards, and vampirism is a widespread and contagious disease that can bring long life in exchange for a terrible hunger. From across this landscape, a dispirate group assembles - Cynthia the Florentine doctor, Dimi the exiled French nobleman-turned-mercenary, Gregory the German vampire and Hywel the ancient Welsh magician - and heads to England to turn the tide of the Wars of the Roses.
The historical detail is rich and well-researched, but assumes a lot of preexisting knowledge on the part of the reader. The Wars of the Roses is a pretty confusing period anyway, and not one that I'm particularly well versed in, so I spent much of the book thinking that the mention of a deceased "Richard of York" meant that Richard III never came to the throne in this universe - alas, not the case at all, and I'll need to do a reread sometime to get a full picture of what was going on. Ford's usual technique of withholding information from the audience is very much in evidence here, but at least here there is some actual historical detail to help the well-informed reader keep track - if you've done your homework, that is.
As it was, I remained rather puzzled about exactly what was at stake throughout the book; our four protagonists were interesting and well-developed characters, but I was never entirely sure what they were trying to do. There was something about how the Byzantine Empire was meddling in politics across Europe so as to destabilise the various countries and make them ripe for invasion, and that somehow this was influencing the civil war, but the details were very sketchy indeed and had very little bearing on the actual plot. Instead, we moved from one historical set-piece to another, where everyone seemed to know what they were doing, but never felt part of a coherent story. This meant that some of the later surprise revelations (is so-and-so a traitor? Or not? Who is he, again?) lost most of their impact, or seemed to come out of nowhere - particularly the final romantic pairings and the epic conclusion, which didn't seem to have been foreshadowed much at all.
The main reason I enjoyed this book, despite the utterly confusing plot, was all the well-realised historical detail. Ford's vision of a polytheistic Europe may raise some questions about how exactly the English monarchy managed to follow the same path as in the actual Christian one, but it was full of glorious images of knights sworn to Apollo, and a London full of temples to all the Norse and Roman gods, with Christianity (the "Jeshites") just another minor sect among many. For that alone I'd bother to do the research and have a reread sometime; maybe it'll make more sense the second time around...?