The Dragon Never Sleeps

{This will be as spoiler-free as I can make it, for the sake of anyone who might be considering whether to make the Herculean efforts needed to find a copy. I'm happy to talk spoilers with anyone who wants to, in follow-ups..}

A bit of background: While in Springfield, Missouri for a friend's wedding, we spent an afternoon wandering around the downtown area. Passing an antique store/ flea market place, Kate sensed books, so we went inside, and found a copy of Glen Cook's notoriously hard-to-find The Dragon Never Sleeps for something like $1. Of course, I snapped that right up.

Unfortunately, I was forced to check my bags on the way home. The airline lost my luggage, as usual (I'm 0-for-domestic-flights when I have to change planes- I've never taken a domestic flight with a change of planes and had my checked luggage arrive on time), and when my bag finally showed up, my Glen Cook book was missing. Who knew the boys at Inter-Air Forwarding were SF fans?

Happily, on hearing this story, Kate's parents went out and found a copy (I have no idea where), and got it for me as a Christmas present. So, it's a few months late, but I've finally gotten to read the book I've been hearing about for all these years.

The setting of the books is dramatically different from most of Cook's more familiar works, but the author is definitely the same man behind the Dread Empire books. There are plots within plans encompassed by schemes...

The basic setting is the sort of thing you might get if Iain Banks were to write stories of a Galactic Patrol-- humanity has established "Canon Space," a sort of loose interstellar empire arrayed along the Web, a mysterious collection of hyperspace threads linking an assortment of star systems and making FTL travel between colony worlds possible. Canon is defended and sometimes expanded by the Guardships, a fleet of gigantic and almost indestructible warships which roam the Web more or less autonomously, keeping the peace and preventing the various quasi-feudal Houses of the Canon empire from getting too powerful. Numerous attempts to overthrow the Guardships have been made over several milennia, but none have succeeded.

The race to come the closest to beating the guardships was the Ku, a nearly-immortal race of warriors and mystics whose greatest leader, Kez Maefele, fought the Guardships until his supplies ran out, then went into hiding. He's been in hiding for several thousand years when the books open, but events soon force Maefele back onto the interstellar stage, possibly to renew his ancient battle with the Guardships.

The plot eventually snares Maefele, along with an eclectic mix of mysterious aliens, biological constructs, scheming aristocrats, soldiers and commanders of the Guardship VII Gemina, and several of the Guardships themselves (each has its own "personality," and they behave like somewhat less urbane versions of the Mind-run ships of Banks's Culture novels). Any attempt to summarize the plot would ruin it, but there are enough twists, turns, and blind alleys to keep the reader off-balance to the very end.

As in his fantasy works, Cook's writing is very much of the "show, don't tell" school (with one glaring exception near the end). From the very beginning, the reader is thrown directly into the world of the Guardships, the Houses, and the tiered cities of the colony worlds, and left to figure out what's going on from context. While this is a very effective technique in the end, this makes things a little rough on the reader in the early going. It's worth persevering, though, as most things are eventually made clear, and it'd be a shame to miss the action to follow.

Plot-wise, Cook does a very nice job of starting with a number of separate threads and weaving them together. It's not immediately clear where things are going, and the major characters either cross paths or narrowly miss one another several times before everything comes together in the end. And there are several points where he makes you _think_ you know where the plot is heading, before jerking the metaphorical rug out from under you, and running off in a different direction while you try straighten the metaphorical furniture.

(On a less consequential note, his gift for cool-sounding names is on full display- "Dire Radiant" is a wonderful name for a rebellious alien fleet...)

There are a few flaws in this- the plot may take one too many turns for its own good, some of the motivations remain a touch vague, and there's an annoying infodump near the end, where the author seems to have painted himself into a bit of a corner. But on the whole, this book deserves its reputation as one of Cook's best, and is well worth a bit of effort to track down a copy. (Or a lot of effort to, say, get it put out in a spiffy trade paper reprint edition...)

Postscript: Some time after I wrote and posted this review, I had the chance to spend an hour or so talking to Mr. Cook at Boskone (a science fiction convention in the Boston area). I asked him about this book, and he mentioned that a good part of the reason for the abrupt start to the book was that the original text was cut down by something like 80,000 words. He said he'd been writing a lot of multi-book series before he sat down to start The Dragon Never Sleeps, and had the contract for the book written to exclude any possibility of this book turning into a series. Whereupon, predictably enough, he found the book expanding in length to the point where it would've been more appropriate to break it into several pieces and make it yet another series. Though he had his agent look into the possibility, he opted to do a serious editing job instead, and cut the length down by about a third, resulting in one of the leanest books you're ever likely to encounter.

If you can find a copy of this, buy it and read it. And buy a bunch of his other books, too, because he's a good writer and a nice guy, and deserves bigger royalty checks.

Last modified: 27 February, 2001