The Dragon Never Sleeps

by Glen Cook

Cover image

Publisher: Night Shade Books
Copyright: 1988
Printing: 2008
ISBN: 1-59780-099-6
Format: MOBI
Pages: 449

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Canon Space is run, in a way, by the noble mercantile houses, who spread their cities, colonies, and mines through the mysterious Web that allows faster-than-light interstellar travel. The true rulers of Canon Space, though, are the Guardships: enormous, undefeatable starships run by crews who have become effectively immortal by repeated uploading and reincarnation. Or, in the case of the Deified, without reincarnation, observing, ordering, advising, and meddling from an entirely virtual existence. The Guardships have enforced the status quo for four thousand years.

House Tregesser thinks they have the means to break the stranglehold of the Guardships. They have contact with Outsiders from beyond Canon Space who can provide advanced technology. They have their own cloning technology, which they use to create backup copies of their elites. And they have Lupo Provik, a quietly brilliant schemer who has devoted his life to destroying Guardships.

This book was so bad. A more sensible person than I would have given up after the first hundred pages, but I was too stubborn. The stubbornness did not pay off.

Sometimes I pick up an older SFF novel and I'm reminded of how much the quality bar in the field has been raised over the past twenty years. It's not entirely fair to treat The Dragon Never Sleeps as typical of 1980s science fiction: Cook is far better known for his Black Company military fantasy series, this is one of his minor novels, and it's only been intermittently in print. But I'm dubious this would have been published at all today.

First, the writing is awful. It's choppy, cliched, awkward, and has no rhythm or sense of beauty. Here's a nearly random paragraph near the beginning of the book as a sample:

He hurled thunders and lightnings with renewed fury. The whole damned universe was out to frustrate him. XII Fulminata! What the hell? Was some malign force ranged against him?

That was his most secret fear. That somehow someone or something was using him the way he used so many others.

(Yes, this is one of the main characters throwing a temper tantrum with a special effects machine.)

In a book of 450 pages, there are 151 chapters, and most chapters switch viewpoint characters. Most of them also end with a question or some vaguely foreboding sentence to try to build tension, and while I'm willing to admit that sometimes works when used sparingly, every three pages is not sparingly.

This book is also weirdly empty of description for its size. We get a few set pieces, a few battles, and a sentence or two of physical description of most characters when they're first introduced, but it's astonishing how little of a mental image I had of this universe after reading the whole book. Cook probably describes a Guardship at some point in this book, but if he does, it completely failed to stick in my memory. There are aliens that everyone recognizes as aliens, so presumably they look different than humans, but for most of them I have no idea how. Very belatedly we're told one important species (which never gets a name) has a distinctive smell. That's about it.

Instead, nearly the whole book is dialogue and scheming. It's clear that Cook is intending to write a story of schemes and counter-schemes and jousting between brilliant characters. This can work if the dialogue is sufficiently sharp and snappy to carry the story. It is not.

"What mischief have you been up to, Kez Maefele?"

"Staying alive in a hostile universe."

"You've had more than your share of luck."

"Perhaps luck had nothing to do with it, WarAvocat. Till now."

"Luck has run out. The Ku Question has run its course. The symbol is about to receive its final blow."

There are hundreds of pages of this sort of thing.

The setting is at least intriguing, if not stunningly original. There are immortal warships oppressing human space, mysterious Outsiders, great house politics, and an essentially immortal alien warrior who ends up carrying most of the story. That's material for a good space opera if the reader slowly learns the shape of the universe, its history, and its landmarks and political factions. Or the author can decline to explain any of that. I suppose that's also a choice.

Here are some things that you may have been curious about after reading my summary, and which I'm still curious about after having finished the book: What laws do the Guardships impose and what's the philosophy behind those laws? How does the economic system work? Who built the Guardships originally, and how? How do the humans outside of Canon Space live? Who are the Ku? Why did they start fighting the humans? How many other aliens are there? What do they think of this? How does the Canon government work? How have the Guardships remained technologically superior for four thousand years?

Even where the reader gets a partial explanation, such as what Web is and how it was built, it's an unimportant aside that's largely devoid of a sense of wonder. The one piece of world-building that this book is interested in is the individual Guardships and the different ways in which they've handled millennia of self-contained patrol, and even there we only get to see a few of them.

There is a plot with appropriately epic scope, but even that is undermined by the odd pacing. Five, ten, or fifty years sometimes goes by in a sentence. A war starts, with apparently enormous implications for Canon Space, and then we learn that it continues for years without warranting narrative comment. This is done without transitions and without signposts for the reader; it's just another sentence in the narration, mixed in with the rhetorical questions and clumsy foreshadowing.

I would like to tell you that at least the book has a satisfying ending that resolves the plot conflict that it finally reveals to the reader, but I had a hard time understanding why the ending even mattered. The plot was so difficult to follow that I'm sure I missed something, but it's not difficult to follow in the fun way that would make me want to re-read it. It's difficult to follow because Cook doesn't seem able to explain the plot in his head to the reader in any coherent form. I think the status quo was slightly disrupted? Maybe? Also, I no longer care.

Oh, and there's a gene-engineered sex slave in this book, who various male characters are very protective and possessive of, who never develops much of a personality, and who has no noticeable impact on the plot despite being a major character. Yay.

This was one of the worst books I've read in a long time. In retrospect, it was an awful place to start with Glen Cook. Hopefully his better-known works are also better-written, but I can't say I feel that inspired to find out.

Rating: 2 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-10-03

Last modified and spun 2022-10-15