Dragon Streets by Jeff Pearce

Rating: 9/10 ★★★★★★★★★☆ 
Title: Dragon Streets
Author: Jeff Pearce
Genre: Fantasy, mystery
URL: Dreamspinner Press
Price: US$6.99
Other Information/warnings: Violence, images of rape and abuse, explicit sexual content (m/m and het)
Summary [from the publisher]:

After Dale Burnett’s abusive common-law wife and innocent son are killed in a car accident, he finds the courage at last to express his bisexuality. And London is a city of hope and potential for a young American. But when a blind date goes horribly wrong, Dale is rescued by Phirun, a British Cambodian who has the astonishing ability to manipulate water. Dragons walk the streets, and they’ve taken human form to live in the world of Man. As two kinds of dragon wage a secret and vicious war, Phirun needs Dale’s help for his side to win, and the stakes include the very survival of the human race.

But one dragon crime boss won’t stop until he gets his hands on the American, who has a mysterious yet vital role to play. As Dale investigates, he grows closer to Phirun, but also to a compassionate female detective of the London police. If the battle is won, Dale must choose between a beautiful female cop who offers stability, affection, and a chance at a new family, or a gorgeous, unpredictable being who is more than man, who has given him ecstasy he has never known before.

My review: This is the third book of Mr Pearce’s I’ve read in almost as many days, though it’s the oldest (and most expensive) of the three. It’s the one most obviously pitched at an m/m audience, but even so, it has the unconventional elements I am beginning to associate with this author.

Dale Burnett is a damaged man – recovering inadequately from an abusive relationship with his girlfriend and mother of his beloved young son, he is knocked off balance when both are killed in a car accident. Grief-stricken and guilt ridden, he still resides in London, but doesn’t quite live there. His pointless copy-editing job is a dead end and his life is lonely and soulless. Tentatively bisexual, he has been so long in the closet and so demoralised by his ex’s queer baiting, that he can barely manage to go out with anyone, let alone the men he finds sexually interesting.

Turning to a dating agency brings him into contact with the very nasty, homophobic George Aragon – who turns out (if his name wasn’t enough of a hint) to be a fire-breathing dragon. The gorgeous Asian man who springs to Dale’s rescue, Phirun, is a water dragon – and Dale has just found himself in the middle of an active, dangerous war, where he’s the unexpected prize being fought over by the ancient dragon rivals.

Dale is sweet, if broken, and the way he and Phirun come together is lovely and beautifully tender. Some readers thought it was too fast – I thought it felt right. Dale and Phirun have become physically intimate before they have sex, they’re both lonely, and they’re both strongly attracted to each other. Dale is cautious because he’s been burned, while Phirun is so dedicated to his role as leader of the water dragon army, that he barely can spare the time to look for a lover. Phirun is the kind of decisive person who, when he sees what he wants, doesn’t waste time in dithering – as a survivor of the killing fields of Cambodia, he, more than most, knows life can be cruelly short.

I liked both men, but I also like Victoria Prentice, the detective inspector who’s investigating mysterious fires and even more mysterious deaths, in which Dale seems to be involved, even if he can’t remember incidents of which graphic photos keep turning up in strangers’ hands. She is sympathetic when he spills his anger over his ex’s abuse, and over his hidden sexuality, and becomes as caught up as he is in the war, though in a different way. The only thing I didn’t care for much was her coming on to him sexually – not, as some readers have said, because het doesn’t belong in an m/m story (Dale’s bisexual, not gay, and showing his twin attractions is honest and felt right here) – but because it felt exploitative, and of course was deeply unprofessional. Then again, Dale needed it at that point, and because his sexuality is still so confusing, I wasn’t surprised he took her up on her advance. She shouldn’t have done it though ::wags finger:: but she helps Dale on the road to accepting himself and his desires, and shows herself to be a good friend when he needs one.

And then there’s the villain, George Aragon. A true psychopath, more dragon than man, cruel and sadistic, he’s scary as hell. Once again Mr Pearce had me on the edge of my seat, wondering how the hell he was going to save Phirun and Dale, and even if he would do so. The battles are ferocious, and no quarter is given. The action sequences are fast and furious – the whole book was well paced, I thought, with excellent, vivid description.

I have to say that for me personally, I had many a frisson of recognition of delight as I recognised places that I’d visited, worked in, and lived in when I was in London. I can verify the setting is absolutely authentic, and if you know London, then you’ll get that little extra enjoyment from that. I even did a very similar job to Dale on very similar documents, for very similar firms while I temped, though it was page-setting, not copy-editing.

Which brings me, sadly, to the flaws in this book. The writing is good, as I noted, but the Dreamspinner editing wasn’t ruthless enough in removing padding – something I’ve seen over and over with this press. The line editing was pretty mediocre – missing words or wrong words here and there, very eccentric punctuation, and a number of places where the formatting had been left as underlining, instead of changing to italics. Sloppy work, which wasn’t up to the writing it graced. Oh and the name for Dale’s special ability, when it’s revealed, had me rolling my eyes. Really, Dreamspinner?

Nonetheless, these problems weren’t enough to spoil my enjoyment. The central idea is so extraordinary, the execution so deft, and the central relationship so enjoyable, that the novel goes to near the top of the best m/m books I’ve ever read. In a genre awash with mediocrity, writers like Pearce are rare lighthouses of quality and talent. I highly recommend this book, especially to those sick to death of werewolves and vampires. This is a fantasy m/m with real balls.