John M. Ford
Completed 4/15/2023, Reviewed 4/15/2023
This is an alternate history fantasy of the rise of Richard III of England, complete with wizards, vampires, and a dragon. The setting is a medieval Europe where Rome has fallen, Christianity hasn’t become dominant, and the Byzantine empire is on the march to conquer western Europe. It’s complex in its style and detail. It seemed like many vignettes rather than one overriding plot. There are four main characters and a myriad of others, including several Richards. All of this made it difficult for me to appreciate. I often found myself lost, trying to figure out where the arc was going, and often where it came from. I read in several reviews that this book takes a lot of effort, and I think it probably requires several readings to really understand and appreciate. It also requires some knowledge of history, not limited to the disappearance of the two young Princes in the Tower whose murders for which Richard was blamed. This book won the 1984 World Fantasy Award.
The book begins giving you the backgrounds of the main characters, leading up to how they met. There’s Hywel, a Welsh wizard; Cynthia, an Italian doctor forced to flee Florence after the death of several Medici’s; Gregory, a German mercenary vampire; and Dimitrios, exiled heir to the Byzantine throne. After a chance meeting at a pub, they make their way to the British Isles to help Richard III gain the throne. Most of the plot of this book after leaving the pub is intrigue amongst the many political factions, eventually leading to a war between Richard III’s forces and the Byzantium backed Henry Tudor (who would be Henry VII).
As you can guess by the tone of this review so far, I had trouble following this book. It seemed to me that there are way too many short scenes which jump between the characters, making it difficult to follow any one subplot of the story. And there are a ton of subplots. That’s what made it such a complicated read for me. Even though I read most of it in large blocks, I still had trouble following it. Then when I went back to work part time, my reading blocks were shorter, making it even more difficult for me.
I did like the main characters. They all had good intentions. I particularly liked Gregory the vampire. He was thoughtful and gentle vampire who didn’t terrorize villages by drinking everyone’s blood and turning them. I also liked Dimitrios who seemed to have some gay tendencies which were subtly alluded to. Cynthia was a little tougher to get to know. She was very guarded, but generally a strong female character in this mostly male dominated story. Hywel was mysterious, generally good natured, but a tough read.
The world building was as complicated as the plot. I did get a good read of each of the places the main characters came from, but after that, the scenes jumped around so much, I found it a tough task. The prose was generally good and the dialogue realistic. Even the secondary characters dialogue was fleshed out pretty well, believable and natural, making them seem as three dimensional as the main characters.
I give this book three stars out of five. It has a lot going for it, but definitely needs to be read a second time, or perhaps studied in a group or class to really understand all the subplots and nuances.