Friday, 23 August 2019

[Review] The Dragon Never Sleeps, Glenn Cook

I am going to experiment with putting some book reviews on the blog - SF and fantasy ones mostly, with some others I think may be of interest. (There will be some crossover with my hastily-jotted reviews on Goodreads for the tiny number of people who are connected to me there.)

First up is Glenn Cook's The Dragon Never Sleeps, which somebody commented here on the blog to recommend (though I forget on which post):

To enjoy this book (which, in the end, I definitely did), you have to enter a zen-like state of acceptance that you will not understand the absurdly convoluted plot, or even what the characters are talking about half the time. Instead, you just need to get a sense, a feeling, of what's going on: conspiracy after conspiracy, twist after twist, betrayal after betrayal, battle after battle. 

You have to do this for four reasons. First, Cook's sub-Hemingway/sub-Ellroy hardboiled prose is here so unrelenting, so monotonous, that it simply ends up beating you into submission. You can't stop to savour it. All you can do is read it, as fast as you can, and hope to get through each page so you can take a breath before the next one. The text just won't let you do anything else. When you're being hit in the face with a prose frying pan, you don't stop to examine it carefully.

Second, the characters, with a very few exceptions, are all so similar in the way they think, talk, and behave that they become almost interchangeable. With nothing to distinguish one character from another except for their names, keeping track of their machinations becomes a kind of Rubik's Cube puzzle in narrative form. You just have to keep spinning and fiddling with it and in the end take it on faith that there is actually a way to solve it. (Perhaps there's some kid in China somewhere who can read five copies of The Dragon Never Sleeps simultaneously in 13 seconds while juggling, or something).

Third, I'm not sure that it is actually possible to perform that leap of faith. By the end, in particular, it had become so hard to follow who is who and what all the different clones of the characters are doing that I did start to wonder if even Glen Cook knew quite what was going on as he was writing. Is he a plotter of impenetrable genius, or just a little old man behind a curtain with a microphone and smoke machine?

Fourth, the pace of the thing is so breakneck, its tour through its fictional universe so whistle-stop, that the reader never really gets a sense of the context in which the events which come at him pell-mell are taking place. There are fascinating hints of an interesting setting (vast depopulation which nobody is noticing; a constructed interstellar travel system which nobody understands; the capacity for spaceships to become sentient; potential immortality), but they really are only just hints - nobody likes an infodump, but here there really isn't enough of the background revealed to even properly picture things in your mind as you're reading. "Less is more" works with fine dining, fine spirits, and fine SF worldbuilding - but all of them only to a point.

Rumour has it that this book was supposed to be a much longer series, but a falling-out with the publishers led to Cook simply writing up all his notes for that series in novel form in breakneck speed. I can believe it, because that's exactly how the book reads: like somebody trying to provide a comprehensive account of everything that happens in a plot so complicated it makes A Song of Ice and Fire read like a Hardy Boys mystery, all compressed into 400 pages. (I kind of wish GRRM would take this approach in his remaining books...). For all that said, the fact that it remains a riveting read is quite some feat on Cook's part - there can't be many writers who could condense a trilogy into an extended synopsis with dialogue and have it be readable, let alone thrilling, but he manages that in spades.

3 1/2 becs des corbins.


  1. I am convinced that Cook is a pantser; that is, he doesn't have a plan, he just throws his characters into a situation and GO! This makes for riveting characters, frequently, but the situations twist and turn and sometimes just peter out, which is realistic, but not very satisfying many times. You read Cook because you want to know what happens to the characters. Anything else will lead you to heartbreak.

  2. I know Glen Cook from his Garret P.I. series, a totally unabashed "Nero Wolfe in D&D fantasy" story. I read half a dozen books in quick succession, and I don't remember anything about any of them. The man is clearly an excellent entertainer.