Nick is fed up with life with his dragon, Phin. Even after 50 years of being companions, Phin still doesn’t understand what Nick needs from their relationship and Nick isn’t sure he ever will. Nick loves Phin and wants to be with him, but he can’t go on the way things are right now. So Nick decides to return to the human realm for a year of separation to see if some time apart helps them work things out.
Being without Phin is hard, but Nick is enjoying working at a comic book shop and staffing anime conventions. When Phin shows up six months into their separation at one of the cons, Nick is both happy to see him and unsure. Phin does seem to be finally seeing Nick as more than just a treasure or a companion, but also as a romantic partner. But Phin also doesn’t always seem to understand the root of their issues and Nick isn’t sure if things will be different if he returns home. But being with Phin again is a joy and, even after the weekend is over, they continue to keep in touch, reuniting again at another convention. Now, Nick is having a chance to see Phin in a new way and Phin is really trying to focus on Nick’s needs. It seems like the pair may be able to make a go of it after all, but when some dragon magic goes awry and Nick is in danger, the men might lose their chance to be together.
I read Lightning Dragon Strikes Out for New-to-Me Author Week as part of our Reading Challenge Month. Not only is Drake a new author for me, this is actually the author’s debut work. I think overall Drake has a nice style and there is some fun humor and playfulness to the story, so I liked getting to experience a new author’s writing.
This book has an interesting set up in that we open with Nick and Phin in the midst of the fight that ultimately leads to their separation. So the story is really focused on the men finding their way back together again, but unlike most lovers reunited stories, we are with them starting from the break up, through the full separation and ultimate reunion. So I enjoyed the slightly different approach here and it gave some immediacy to the conflict that I appreciated. I did struggle getting my bearings at the start, however, since we just jump right into things. It took me a while to understand that the men are not lovers or romantic partners at the beginning of the book; Nick works for Phin as his estate manager in his home in the dragon realm. They are friends and companions, with Nick an employee and Phin considering Nick his “treasure.” Nick seems to want a romantic relationship with Phin, but Phin is clear he doesn’t see Nick that way, but rather as more of a treasured possession. I also struggled to really understand the nature of their conflict and what was happening between them that made Nick so upset. It seemed to generally fall under the category of not being appreciated and being overlooked, but honestly, I really had a hard time distilling down the issues between them in a way that I could follow. So this made it hard when the guys are then trying to work through things as I couldn’t really tell if anything was improving over their past dynamic.
After the initial break up, most of the story takes place in the human realm during two cons where Nick is working. Drake does a nice job really bringing these events to life and showcasing what they are all about. Drake has an obvious love for anime and this type of con culture and it really shines through. Drake highlights the freedom of being with people who are into the same things you are, the celebration of enjoying something with friends, and the acceptance that comes from like minded (and open minded) people. As someone who has experienced similar feelings attending romance cons, I really feel like Drake nails this experience well. The problem I had is that I felt like it was just too much focus on the conferences. I am not familiar with the anime fandoms featured (and to be honest, I am not even sure which fandoms they are) and so I really couldn’t appreciate the depth we go into the details of the event. There is just so much conversation about different anime characters and fandoms, scenes of Phin’s pictures being taken in his cosplay outfits, discussion of how the cons work, scenes of Nick staffing the booth, etc. It just took up too much focus for me and I felt overwhelmed with it all. I think if you are a big anime or cosplay fan, this story would be right up your alley, but as someone without this background, it was too much for me.
I also struggled here with the lack of world building. I already mentioned my confusion at the beginning just getting my bearings and so little is really explained here. We know that there is a human realm, plus where the dragons live. But we learn nothing about the dragon world other than that there is a dragon council of sorts and that Phin is a lord and landowner. I got the sense that there are other supernatural beings there, but we never learn what they might be. It is also unclear whether humans know about the existence of dragons or that there are multiple realms. Also, we know Phin is a lightning dragon, and we meet a sky dragon and a fire dragon, but these designations don’t appear to mean anything (or if they do, we aren’t told/shown what that might be). They appear to affect some physical traits (the sky dragon has blue eyes, the fire dragon has reddish skin), but we get no indication they are significant as far as physical abilities, personality traits, or anything else, so these designations felt kind of meaningless. We see very little about these men that seems draconian, aside from an occasional physical sign and Phin being territorial about his treasures. As a result, the book feels like it could have skipped the whole dragon shifter aspect with very little change.
I was also confused about Nick’s easy re-entry to the human world. I got the clear impression that the men rarely venture back to the human realm (and we know Nick had to leave the human realm to live with Phin in the dragon realm), yet after 50 years of not living there, Nick is able to walk back in and seems to easily assimilate into a society he hasn’t been part of for half a century. Even being familiar with whatever he sees in anime, wouldn’t he have some adjustment problems? Not to mention, did Nick stop aging in the dragon realm? Because otherwise, he would be 50 years older than when he left (making him something like 70-80, at least). And what about what happened to his old life when he left for the dragon realm? We are also told that Nick’s new coworkers think he is from some remote Canadian town because of the weird way he speaks, yet he speaks totally normally and just like everyone else, including having the ability to make casual pop culture references to things that occurred while he wasn’t living in the human realm. We know the men watch anime together (so somehow human tv/movies make their way to the dragon realm), but are also told that after the first convention, Phin gets internet so that they can communicate, so clearly internet didn’t exist for them before that. So I just felt like this was all left really muddy and not developed.
I did enjoy the men as they reconnect and there are some nice moments between them as they spend time together at the cons. But I found myself really frustrated that Phin still, even at the 11th hour, seems to have no idea why Nick is upset, nor really that inclined to change his behavior. He wants things to get better, but doesn’t seem to have really learned or grown the way I needed him to for this reconnection to feel like it works. Things really fell apart for me when the guys have sex and Phin shifts partially into a dragon. Nick is upset because he could have been harmed, and Phin is so blasé about it. But worse, he then takes a serious action during sex without Nick’s consent that ends up almost killing Nick. Even before we know Nick is in danger, the act is a huge violation and Phin seems completely without remorse. He calls it an accident, but it is less like “I accidentally tripped over that step” and more like “I accidentally did something I wanted without asking you and now I know you are mad at me.” Then, rather than talking to Nick (or even telling him what he did), Phin sexes Nick up first thing in the morning with the goal of making Nick feel good — not because he wants Nick happy in and of itself, but because then Nick might not be as mad when he finds out the truth. This dismissive attitude and lack of real remorse continues through the end of the book, and rather than Phin genuinely accepting his mistake and giving a sincere apology, we see Nick feel bad for rejecting Phin and being mad at him. I guess it all just boils down to a lack of clarity from the start as to what was wrong between the men and then no real demonstration that anything had changed, particularly with Phin.
Oh, one more note. At one point, one of Phin’s staff oversteps in her behavior and he is so mad he kills and eats her. At first, I thought it was sort of posturing… you’d better run, because I’m coming after you. But no, he literally murders her and everyone sort of sighs and rolls their eyes like this isn’t awful, because no one liked her anyway.
Overall, I think this was an interesting story and I enjoyed getting to experience Drake’s writing. I liked the story structure, as well as the way the convention experience was incorporated, and there is a nice, light tone here I appreciated. But I struggled with lack of clarity on the relationship issues, lack of depth in the world building, and lack of any real sign of remorse or change from Phin. I think if you are a big fan of anime, however, this story might push all your buttons, so it’s worth considering.
This review is part of our Reading Challenge Month for New-to-Me Author Week! Leave a relevant comment below and you will be entered to win one of FIVE $20 JMS Books bookstore gift cards (you can see the full event prize list here)! Commenters will also be entered to win our amazing grand prize sponsored by NineStar Press: a Kindle Paperwhite loaded with 50 NineStar Press books! You can get more information on our Challenge Month here (including all the contest rules) and more details on New-to-Me Author Week here.