Author: Nesly Clerge
The prison door slams shut behind you. You turn to face your new cellmate. He snarls at you, grabbing you by your prison scrubs, thrusting a piece of paper into your terrified face. On the paper, scrawled in barely legible script is a blurb:
“Secrets and lies force their way to the surface in Nesly Clerge’s newest novel of deception, crime, and buried history. Frederick Starks thought he’d already lost as much as one man could: A beautiful family, the luxurious life wealth provides, success, admiration—all stripped from him in one moment of madness that resulted in a fifteen-year sentence in a maximum security prison. Certain that life has gotten as bad as it can get, Starks contrives a way to rise to the top of the inmate hierarchy. But his assumption is wrong. Amid stunning revelations, betrayals, and violence, Starks faces one challenge after another, until a life-altering event forces him into the most brutal confrontation of all: the truth about himself.”
When The Dragon Roars is the follow up to When The Serpent Bites (my review is here), at the end of which we left Frederick Starks a very broken man. After a particularly devastating revelation Starks goes ever so slightly off the rails. Not that he was particularly secure on those rails to begin with, mind. His rails have been greased, bumpy and full of gaps for quite a while, but by the end of WTSB he is 4 carriages short of a full train and is heading for the buffers. Head shaven, freshly tattooed with a dragon spanning the length of his arm, he is ready to take on the rest of Sands Correctional Facility, the maximum security prison he is destined to spend the next 15 years of his life in, and become the Top Dog, the Grand Fromage, the Quelle Surprise, the Big Sith, The Bon Voyage, The, er, The Big Something-Or-Other-I-Can’t-Think-Of-Right-Now-But-Will-Come-To-Me-When-It-Is-Too-Late-No-Doubt-Tsch-Rolls-Eyes.
Starks’s problem, among his many, many problems, is that he just won’t bloody listen to anyone. He’s a proud man. Fiercely loyal, and he rewards loyalty just as fiercely, but his pride is very often his downfall. He still rejects those who are trying to help him despite knowing deep down that what they are saying is the truth, or at least partly. Starks is still reeling from the events that put him into prison in the first place; his wife Kayla’s infidelity, or, as it has now become apparent to him, infidelities, leading to the vicious beating of her then lover, Ozy Hessinger. Not that he is in any position to hold the moral high ground here as he has also played the field himself over the course of their 20+ year relationship (Well, when I say field he’s also played the meadow next to the field, then crossed into the next field, took in the gardens of the houses bordering that field and then moved on to the prairie that stretches for miles in every direction like what you get in the USA). But that’s ok because he is a man. Clearly it’s perfectly fine for him to fuck around, siring kids hither and thither, but if his woman does it, well, that is not ok. Nesly through his characters, notably prison counsellor Matthew Demory, but also Stark’s best friend Jeffrey, his cell mate Jackson and new character, Mafia boss incarcerate Gabe Bianchi, attempt, mostly futilely, to get Starks to see both sides; to accept his part in the spectacular clusterfuck that is, or was, his life and relationship with Kayla. But he is a man blinded by pride and hubris. However, he is capable of change. He does see that his friends have a point, but he often turns it around and makes out they are siding against him, not with him. Despite all of his faults, and this guy has more faults than the earth’s crust, Frederick Starks is a likeable man underneath it all: he’s loyal to his friends; very willing to use his wealth to help out those who unable to do so for themselves; and is generous to those who stay loyal to him. This is a very handy aspect to his personality in his desire to become prison Kingpin. He’s wealthy enough to pay off guards and other inmates, to keep them on his payroll, and his generosity is respected by those loyal to him.
But these things are not enough to guarantee him a smooth ride in Sands. His money may get him a long way, but he has made some bitter enemies during is brief time so far here and Starks is not above the odd bit of murder to make sure that he stays safe. He possesses a weapon, acquired in the last book, that makes him feared amongst the other inmates, but also makes him a target. Although he is quite willing to use it when he needs to, he is a reluctant killer. Violence to Starks is very much the means to an end. He takes no pleasure from it, unlike some of his fellow incarcerates. But this can make him look weak in the eyes of others, including those in his crew. When he refuses to deal with one of his crew in the manner they see fit (i.e. kill his big-mouthed ass), and then there’s his preferential treatment of a young newcomer, Kane, someone he sees as a surrogate son, people start to doubt his ability to lead and murmurs of dissent begin to grow.
As in WTSB, once again Nesly has created a compelling prison drama, deepening the story of Frederick Starks and the world of Sands Correctional Facility. As this is the second book in a trilogy it has all the second act beats that you would expect, but it could also stand alone if you were unfortunate enough not to have read WTSB (but really, you should totes read that book first. I mean, you wouldn’t watch The Empire Strikes Back before A New Hope now, would you? Would you? Get off of my blog if you would! The very notion *stern face*)
Like all good second acts, When The Dragon Roars introduces us to some new characters who make a pretty big impact on Stark’s life in prison: the aforementioned Gabe and Kane, but also the deeply unlikeable Dr. Troy, loyal new crew member Tank, CO Red Brunson and Seth, the last person in Stark’s way to the top. We don’t meet Seth in person in WTDR, though that will no doubt come in the final book When The Phoenix Rises, but his actions here, the brutal slaying of one of the closest members of Starks’s crew, sets the ball rolling for the finale to come.
When The Dragon Roars is a such a great read: It’s relentless, it’s fun, it’s twisty, it’s turny, it’s prisony, and it’s utterly uncompromising; Nesly continues to torment his characters, flinging every piece of bad news, bad luck and bad karma at them in any way he can. You can almost imagine him chuckling away to himself at his computer as he thinks up some new personal tragedy to befall our anti-hero and his chums. As it’s a prison drama some of it is predictable, there’s only so many ways this type of story can be told I guess, but he does it with such style and confidence it really doesn’t matter. Nesly’s ear for dialogue and his descriptions of prison life really immerse you into his world. I loved it and I can wait to see how it all finishes in the final book When The Phoenix Rises.