Review: The Dragon Never Sleeps, by Glen Cook

Russ Allbery eagle at
Mon Oct 3 20:02:54 PDT 2022

The Dragon Never Sleeps
by Glen Cook

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

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 does

  "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 managed to maintain
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

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

Oh, and there's an 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


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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