Return of the Dragon by Alex J. Webster is a bloody good ride from start to finish.
Vampires have no doubt made a comeback in popular fiction, but some critics have noted the toned-down nature of these depictions, as opposed to the more sinister and terrifying versions of generations past. Alex Webster is clearly a student of those older varieties, as his eccentric vampire novel, Return of the Dragon, boldly shows. Readers are given a small glimpse into reports that hint at the vampire’s bloody history, eventually stopping off in the 1950s, in Soviet-policed Romania, where there are plenty of ways to get killed – supernatural and otherwise.
Gheorghe is an unforgettably charming protagonist, and although he seems to be a “wrong place, wrong time” type of hero, he carries the novel well, and faces the mounting pressure with surprising resolve. He is a lonely man, but one that seems destined for greater things, and his history as a police detective gives him an undercurrent of honor that is lacking in some of his colleagues and superiors. A number of other characters, such as Radu and Father Petre, also act as interesting foils for Gheorghe, helping to progress the story quickly and bring the main character up to speed on certain plot points and exposition that he will need to crack the case. The Order of the Dragon, an ancient cult dedicated to protecting Romania, appears to be once again acting on behalf of their sacred lands, and they’re somehow linked with the disappearances Gheorghe has been tasked to investigate.
As a simple foot soldier trying to make a name for himself, Gheorghe is quickly drawn into a dark and mysterious world where life is cheap, reality is far from believable, and every clue seems to lead him closer to a powerful figure known only as The Master. Navigating the deadly path of powerful vampires and ancient evil, Gheorghe realizes that he is more connected to the Order of the Dragon, and the true defenders of Romania, than he could have ever imagined, but that doesn’t mean he is in any less danger. With his loyalties split, and his allies divided, it seems as though Gheorghe has little chance of defeating the Master and his growing army of devotees and devilish fiends. However, there is power in his gypsy blood, and courage in his heart, perhaps enough to quell the evil spreading in his country.
Throughout the book, readers see pieces falling into place earlier than the protagonist, but the author avoids showing too much of his hand, successfully maintaining a constant level of suspense in the novel. The writing is authentic, the dialogue is believable, and the rich descriptive passages are balanced perfectly with action and character development. Some of the narration is slightly unnecessary, and could have been cut, but even so, the novel never slows to a dull or sluggish pace.
The military, cultural, historical and geographical research needed to create such a believable tale is clearly extensive, and the reading experience is immersive from the very start. Return of the Dragon is a stirring picture of life in a Soviet-dominated society, boasting gritty detective themes, impressively fleshed out characters and supernatural elements, all of which make this novel a slow-burning thriller with a wide appeal. The skillful storytelling of Alex Webster will have readers locking their doors and keeping the lights on as they tear through this macabre masterpiece.