Cervena is a gay strip club situated in Prague, owned by business partners Joel Jones and Karel Doubrava. Joel is conscientious and proud of the club he and Karel built from nothing, particularly because Cervena is popular for its class, not seediness. Despite Joel’s professional success, he feels that there is something missing from his life. This is intensified by the fact that while he has made his home in Prague, his sister, brother-in-law, niece, and sick mother are back in London.
However, Joel is unprepared for the night he takes a young homeless man from the streets to feed him. There is immediately something attractive behind the man’s unkempt face and unpleasant smell and Joel offers him a job at the club. Sasha is Russian, having left his home due to bigotry and violence, even from his parents, because of his sexuality. He is happy to be invited to work at Cervena, mainly for the free room and regular wages. Joel is initially reluctant to act on his attraction towards Sasha because of the younger man’s age and vulnerability, but when it is obvious that Sasha reciprocates Joel’s feelings, neither man can resist.
Whilst Joel finds happiness with Sasha, his professional life becomes a mess. Karel’s betrayal puts Joel and Sasha in more danger than they could have ever imagined and not only does Joel risk losing the man he loves, but Cervena too.
Cervena is cleverly written by Louise Lyons. She lulls the reader into a false sense of security for the first half of the book and I definitely assumed that this was simply a contemporary gay romance. Yet, Cervena is much more than that. This is a novel in which the tension felt by Lyons’ protagonists is tangible. There is a menacing atmosphere in the second half of the book, caused by those from the criminal underworld, which put me on the edge of my seat. I genuinely feared for the safety, and sanity, of Joel and Sasha.
The real surprise of the story comes in the form of Joel’s savior, who is a secondary character, though still interesting and with an obviously pivotal role.
Lyons is able to explore the perils of business successfully without destroying the groundwork she has laid for Joel and Sasha’s love story. The danger the two men find themselves in allows Lyons to develop the personalities of Sasha and Joel even further, thus drawing the reader into the story even more. Whereas Joel has appeared to be resolute and single-minded previously, the events expose him emotionally and his love for Sasha becomes his driving force, even overtaking his desire to succeed in business.
In contrast, the reader may have assumed that Sasha is the weaker partner, but Lyons brings us to the realization that this is definitely not the case. In a sense, Sasha becomes the story’s hero, both for his bravery and the fact that he ‘rescues’ Joel from himself.
As much as I enjoyed both Cervena and Lyons’ writing style I felt frustrated during the book’s latter chapters. Joel and Sasha achieve much in a short space of time, but for me the story became stilted with paragraphs beginning, “That evening . . .”; “The following morning . . .”; “The next day . . .”.
This is just a small blemish in what is overall a well-told and gripping story. The book is a welcome addition to the gay romance genre and Cervena is a novel I would happily recommend.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.