The odds are fairly good that if you’re aware of Glen Cook, you know him for series like Garrett and Black Company; if you’re of a certain vintage, you might have read his early Dread Empire books, or perhaps the Starfishers space operas. The Black Company (novel, not series) would have made a fine inaugural book for my new review series, Military Speculative Fiction That Doesn’t Suck. However, it happens that I prefer SF to fantasy , so I will review something that (thanks to Stupid Publisher Tricks back in the Late Reagan) was unjustly obscure: 1988’s The Dragon Never Sleeps.
The Brobdingnagian Guardships have enforced Canon Law over a realm spanning millions of stars for thirty-seven centuries. They make no pretense of fairness or justice; what Canon stands for is stability and human (within certain limits) supremacy. Aliens and artificial persons who will accept second-class status are permitted to serve their betters. Aliens and artificial persons who object are permitted to die in a holocaust of nuclear fire.
The ancient alien whom everyone called Turtle appears to be the first, submissive sort of alien. Yet once upon a time, he was the Ku warrior Kez Maefele, one of the paramount leaders of the Dire Radiant. The Dire Radiant failed and almost all his companions died. Turtle has been biding his time for centuries, surviving until he thought he had a chance to strike back at the Guardships. Now, thanks to the ambitions of Simon Tregressor, that chance has come.
Tregressor is already head of one of the most powerful families in the Canon, yet even he must bend his knee to the Guardships. He has spent a long life looking for a way to gain some independence from the Guardships. Old and near death, he is willing to risk all on a single, ambitious roll of the dice that, if successful, will leave House Tregressor with a Guardship of its own. If unsuccessful … well, he’s had a good life.
Unfortunately for Simon, he lives in a universe where not only do plans not survive their first encounter with the enemy, they don’t even survive encounters with allies or in some cases with the plan’s architect. Simon’s daughter and grandson both have their own agendas (as do their many clones). Tregressor is making common cause with chaotic evil aliens, who may be enemies of the Guardships … but aren’t pro-Simon. Even Simon’s trusted right hand man, the extremely scary Lupo Provik, isn’t 100% on board with the old man’s scheme.
The fact that the Guardships have crushed every rebellion against them for almost four thousand years probably should have convinced Simon not to play silly buggers against them. What Simon cannot predict is that his scheme will inadvertently hand Turtle the weapons it needs to end the Guardships’ reputation for invincibility.
What Turtle cannot know is that his bold stratagem could not possibly come at a worse time. There are things between the stars that are far worse than the Guardships and they have their optical units fixed on Canon space.…
The reason you’ve probably not heard of this is because it was originally published by Questar, which was Popular Library’s SF line (Popular was in turn owned by Warner). Questar made some bold publishing choices at the tail end of the 1980s. For example, their mass market edition of Cherryh’s Cyteen chopped the narrative into three parts, which made buying the MMPK version of the whole series nearly as expensive as the hardcover.
In the case of The Dragon Never Sleeps, the publisher slapped an ugly cover on it.
That might not have doomed the book (we can all think of books with ugly covers that nonetheless sold well). But the publisher also comprehensibly screwed up the distribution, which meant that a lot of Cook fans couldn’t find copies (which they probably would have read and enjoyed, cover art be damned). The Dragon Never Sleeps fell out of print quickly and it stayed out of print for twenty years.
This book is military SF, yes, but it’s also space opera on a grand scale. Canon includes millions of stars and many species. Human history disappears into fog about six thousand years in the past (still long after humans spread to the stars), but there are hints of alien histories that stretch back billions of years. The Dragon Never Sleeps is set in a universe that reminds me of Norton’s books: humans are just the latest imperial power (having displaced the Go thousands of years ago). Human power won’t last forever. Indeed, much of this book is driven by Canon’s slow realization that humans are now a minority, and the aliens and artificial persons are the majority. Canon’s survival may depend on how effectively they can recruit members of their former underclass into the elite.
I have to say that while on the whole I believe that brevity is a novelistic virtue, this novel has about 700 pages worth of plot crammed into 422 pages. The book could have used at least another hundred pages. There are stretches where years flutter by like flocks of hummingbirds high on cocaine.
I am also unhappy with the fact that this book’s few female characters tend to be relegated to sex toy status. However, the plot threads re soldiers AnyKat and Jo Klass make it clear that the problem is Canon’s social mores, not Cook’s assumptions about gender roles. Canon is a terrible place in many ways; institutionalized sexism is just one of them.
Like many MilSF authors, Cook is inspired by Roman history — though he isn’t just committing dire Turtledoveian cut and paste. There are some significant differences between Canon and Rome, beginning with the fact that, while the Guardships may seem to be playing the role of the Praetorian Guard, there isn’t an emperor. In fact, we are told little about how government works (aside from the importance of staying below the Guardship radar). There are bureaucrats, some provinces have presidents, but on the whole, government is not part of the story.
Another point of difference is Guardship soldiers are functionally immortal; they survive as long as their Guardship does. (Canon seems not to have invented off-site backups). When human soldiers die, they are reborn as clones with transferred memories. Officers who are especially good at their jobs will be preserved as deified artificial intelligences. Experience and skills are not lost due to age and mishaps, The downside is that Guardships have had time to become a lot stranger than any eccentric human could ever hope to become.
I find it interesting that Canon’s upper classes are expressly denied immortality. A plutocrat can transfer their mind to a new body, but at the cost of trading their old status for that of an artificial person and joining the underclass.
Aside from Turtle and his friends, and perhaps Lupo Provik once he emerges from Simon’s shadow, this book is a bit lean on sympathetic protagonists. Jo Klass is competent, but she and her fellow soldiers have turned crimes against humanity into standard operating procedure. They have managed to create an impressively stable empire, one just beginning to show cracks, but stability seems to be its main virtue. For most of the inhabitants, it’s an unpleasant place to live.
Even though this book about horrible people doing terrible things, I still get caught up in the story every time I read it. Be warned: Cook doesn’t really do linear plots; nobody ever has enough information; and everyone is working at cross purposes. As a result the plot (plots) end up looking less like a Martian canal and more like the Waimakariri:
The Dragon Never Sleeps is available from Night Shade Books. Although I couldn’t get the search function on their site to work so have a link to Amazon instead.
1: While acknowledging the whole rutabaga versus swede question with F and SF.