I was a little thrown to see the paucity of recommendations. A month later -- even fudging on some of the criteria -- the number of "good urban-fantasy novels with dragon characters" is still small. As such, I'm making this post as an attempt to compile a definitive list.
The ideal book to be listed here would have four characteristics:
- Enjoyable to read (subjective though this may be);
- Urban fantasy (i.e., a modern/near-future Earth that contains fantastical elements);
- (Or failing that, historical fantasy -- post-Renaissance Earth with fantastical elements.)
- A dragon is a protagonist;
- (Or failing that, at least a major character that significantly drives the story.)
- Published and commercially available.
I've linked each title to its Amazon listing - mainly as a source of opinions and reviews; no specific bookseller endorsement is implied.
Please speak up in comments if there are other items that should be added in!
LAST UPDATE: 2011/05/03
Dragons Wild (Robert Asprin, 2008) and its sequel "Dragons Luck" (2009)
Blurb: "This colorful series opener introduces lazy con artist Griffen McCandles, who ... expects to be given a job working for his uncle Malcolm's company. Then Malcolm reveals that Griffen and his sister, Valerie, are near pureblood dragons, expected to choose sides in an international battlefield of magic and ancient rivalries."
Reviewer Consensus: Robert Asprin
City of Fire (Laurence Yep, 2009), book 1 of a planned trilogy
Blurb: "An unforgettable journey through an alternate version of our world in 1941. The principal characters are 12 year-old Scirye; her lap-Griffin Kles; Leech and Koko, two street urchins; and Bayang, a dragon assassin. Their paths cross as they seek revenge against a common foe, the ancient dragon Badik and the human Roland."
Reviewer Consensus: For a young-adult series, this has surprisingly deep worldbuilding -- and a world of overt magic and alternate history where Hawaii is independent and WWII didn't take place. "It's also nice that Yep gives us Asian-influenced fantasy and Asian characters [in a genre] often populated entirely by white children," one reviewer notes, and another praises the multicultural mythology. The author's a two-time Newbery Honor winner and this seems like a promising start to a new series.
Make Way For Dragons! (Thorin Gunnarsson, 1990), et.al. (Trilogy)
Blurb: A reviewer sums it up - "It's good standard fantasy [set in southern California], with a few horrible puns thrown in ... It's a book about friendship, and about chasing dreams, and about fighting huge horribly ugly evil dragons with the help of the small pretty ones."
Reviewer Consensus: Gunnarsson seems to be sufficiently obscure that I can't get a good idea of the books' strengths and weaknesses, but nobody seems to dislike it. This one seems to travel mostly through personal recommendation.
Bax's Notes: This series seems to be aiming for the Piers Anthony/Xanth audience - featuring amazingly bright (and prematurely mature) protagonists growing into their true selves; the fantasy world and the "real" one unexpectedly entangling; and loads of horrible puns. Like with Xanth, the books often stray from the plot to tread around the edges of (dragon) sex and sexuality - not necessarily a bad thing, but be aware of it going in. Also, run the trilogy's covers through a shredder: it's painfully clear the artist and blurb writer never cracked the books. The protagonists are also on the ragged edge of Mary Sue-dom. All that having been said: There's a great deal to like in the books. They're good reads, consistently inventive, with well-defined and well-explained magic (and technology, and airships). Recommended.
The "Jennifer Scales" series: Jennifer Scales and the Ancient Furnace (MaryJanice Davidson, 2005) et.al. (Four books and counting)
Series website: www.jenniferscales.com
Blurb: "And you thought puberty sucked. Try morphing into a dragon. ... This is ridiculous and just so unfair. And I can't believe my parents waited until the day I turned into a dragon to tell me that I am one - thanks to my dad's side of the family. Believe me, no amount of dieting can stop how big I grow when I turn dragon - and don't get me started on the tail."
Reviewer Consensus: It does seem to have more depth than the blurb indicates; reviewers find it a strong entry into the Young Adult market, with smart humor and realistic characters. The author's better known for her Paranormal Romance genre writing, but this is a coming-of-age series with no sex and good family themes.
The "Dragons In Our Midst" series: Raising Dragons (Bryan Davis, 2004) et.al. (Eight books)
Series website: www.dragonsinourmidst.com
Blurb: "A boy learns of his dragon past; a girl has known of hers for years. They combine their faith, courage, and love to overcome evil, a slayer who seeks to bring an end to dragon heritage forever."
Reviewer Consensus: A young-adult urban fantasy series marketed specifically at Christians (the author has also written such works as "The Story of Jesus' Baptism and Temptation"). But Christian fantasy can be good even outside the target market (just ask C.S. Lewis), and the reviews all seem positive.
The Dragon Delasangre (Alan F. Troop, 2002), et.al. (Four books and counting)
Series website: www.dragonnovels.com (author's site)
Blurb: "Here, at last, are the confessions of one Peter DelaSangre, who tells of his life on an island off the coast of Miami...of his lonely balancing act between the worlds of humans and dragons...and of the overwhelming need that gives his life purpose: To find a woman of his own kind."
Reviewer Consensus: Troop gets compared to Anne Rice a lot, and apparently with good reason: the books are filled with dragons eating humans (because, apparently, tasty tasty humanflesh is the only thing dragons can survive on) and/or having sex with folks (including the humans). Readers who didn't pick it up expecting a gory bodice-ripper had few kind things to say. But if that's your speed, you'll probably enjoy it.
The Temeraire series: His Majesty's Dragon (Naomi Novik, 2006) et.al. (Five books and counting)
Series website: www.temeraire.org (author's site)
Blurb: "Novik seamlessly blends fantasy into the history of the Napoleonic wars. ... When [the dragon] Temeraire bonds with the captain, the two leave the navy to sign on with His Majesty's sadly understaffed Aerial Corps, which takes on the French in sprawling, detailed battles that Novik renders with admirable attention to 19th-century military tactics."
Reviewer Consensus: This is historical fantasy, not urban fantasy, but it's apparently a great enough set of novels to branch out and enjoy anyway. Though the dragons are glorified mounts, they are very intelligent, and by many accounts characterized better than their human compatriots.
Tea With The Black Dragon (Roberta McAvoy, 1983) and its sequel Twisting the Rope
Blurb: "Mayland Long is an enigmatic oriental gentleman who just might be the human incarnation of a Chinese Dragon. Martha MacNamara is a fiftyish woman who plays fiddle in an Irish jig band, and she just may be the Zen master that Mayland Long has been waiting for. Together, they unravel a mystery that makes San Francisco of the nineteen-eighties seem as sinister and magical as any land ever depicted in a fantasy novel."
Reviewer Consensus: Possibly the most recommended books on this whole list. An early masterpiece of cross-genre fiction, although the 1980s computer technology may now seem amusingly dated.
Bax's Notes: Two things impressed themselves upon me on my first read-through: this is a short book; and it's really a story about a relationship. It is indeed packed with mystery and action, but they're there as flavoring to the rich broth of Mayland and Martha's interactions. The overall effect is measured and almost haunting. Good, but quite a different novel than I expected.
Nothing But Blue Skies (Tom Holt, 2004)
Blurb: "There are many reasons why British summers are either non-existent or, alternatively, held on a Thursday. Many of these reasons are either scientific, mad, or both—but all of them are wrong, especially the scientific ones. The real reason why it rains perpetually from January 1st to December 31st is, of course, irritable Chinese Water Dragons. Karen is one such legendary creature. Ancient, noble, nearly indestructible and, for a number of wildly improbable reasons, working as a real estate agent, Karen is irritable quite a lot of the time. But now things have changed, and Karen’s no longer irritable. She’s furious."
Reviewer Consensus: The book's too obscure to get a good consensus, but commenters agree Holt is a really funny guy.
Tooth And Claw (Jo Walton, 2003)
Blurb: "Walton says this book is 'the result of wondering what a world would be like if the axioms of the sentimental Victorian novel were inescapable laws of biology.' It is also something truly different. ... Everyone in the story is a dragon, and in their society, children eat their deceased parents, and the stronger eat the weaker, for only by eating the flesh of its kind can a dragon achieve full strength and power."
Reviewer Consensus: It's hard to call this "historical fantasy" when all of the characters are dragons, but it's such a send-up of the Victorian era that it's also hard to call it anything but. An imaginative premise that should hit home with urban fantasy readers willing to look a little further afield.
Dragons Can Only Rust (Chrys Cimri, 1995) and its sequel Dragon Reforged
Blurb: "An intelligent, crippled dragon leaves home on a search for his own soul, accompanied by an android medic with an ominous agenda and a young woman from an asteroid who is determined to remain on Earth."
Reviewer Consensus: Blowing past urban fantasy straight into sci-fi! The dragon is an artificial life form, and the vibe I get is that the story is tackling issues of AI identity in the same vein as Freefall's current story arc. Horribly obscure, but readers (at least those who managed to get ahold of both books and read the whole story) seemed to enjoy it.
A Book Dragon (Donn Kushner, 1988)
Blurb: "[The dragon] Nonesuch survives the changes of history (the War of the Roses, the great fire of London, etc.) by becoming as small as a large insect. He finds ... a Book of Hours lovingly illuminated by a monk during Nonesuch's youth near the end of the Middle Ages. ... Centuries later, Nonesuch and his book are in the New World. How he becomes enmeshed in human affairs is at the center of Kushner's quiet, intelligent book."
Reviewer Consensus: This historical fantasy is geared toward a young-reader crowd, but seems to be quite charming for kids and adults alike. Might be difficult to find.
The Truth About Dragons: An Anti-Romance (Hazard Adams, 1971)
Blurb: "In the spring of 1971, a major catastrophe occurred in California, and it was not until a scholar discovered a manuscript written by one Firedrake, a dragon, that the real nature of the catastrophe was revealed to men. ... His account tells of a young girl's efforts to seduce him and to gain possession of the mysterious hoard that he guards."
Bax's Notes: Adams "is one of the foremost scholars of today in the fields of English romanticism and literary theory and criticism," best known for his influential textbook Critical Theory Since Plato. This book was a real one-off for him, and most people who recognize his name don't know it exists. I read it decades ago, enjoyed it, and swiped it from my high school library (where I was the only person to check it out in years). As such, I own one of approximately six copies on Earth.
Books about modern-day dragons that aren't novels:
Dragons: The Modern Infestation (Pamela Wharton Blanpied, 1980)
Blurb: "This entire book is a straightfaced "report" on the lives of dragons and their (re)discovery by humans. The report contains everything from data to sketches to excerpts from letters among the renowned researchers, and the aerial photos are not to be missed."
Reviewer Consensus: A hilarious send-up of a scientific report.
Bax's Notes: My high school library had a copy of the book. It's really not about anything we would recognize as mythologically dragons (typical photos in the book are of sinuous sand dunes or dragon-shaped clouds), but it's a clever piece of worldbuilding.
Urban-fantasy novels in which the dragons aren't protagonists but still play significant roles:
The Chrome Circle (Mercedes Lackey, 1994)
Blurb: "Thinking he has found his mate for life, rock-music playing and fast-driving mage Tannim finds his dreams complicated by her dragon father, her part-human-part-fox personality, and her apparent desire to kill him."
Reviewer Consensus: This novel -- also reprinted in "The Chrome Borne" with another story from the same series -- is from Lackey's "fast cars and cold iron" series "The SERRAted Edge," which has much more of a focus on elves. This particular story seems to be the only one with major dragon involvement.
Not Ordinarily Borrowable (Thomas Thurman, 2009)
Book's website: borrowable.net
Blurb: "Maria is occupied with trying to earn her doctorate, and she's far too busy for adventures. But when the library books she needs are unexpectedly borrowed (by a dragon) she finds herself on a quest to find the books, the dragon, a sword, courage, and the greatest cake recipe in the world... not to mention the last chapter of her thesis."
Reviewer Consensus: In the words of the author marnanel, "it's not really urban fantasy, more magical realism," but it's still a recognizable reflection of our world. The first two chapters are freely available for your evaluation. The few reviews on Amazon are all positive.
The Dragons Of The Cuyahoga (S. Andrew Swann, 2001)
Blurb: "Swann's mystery is a fantasy, set in a Cleveland, Ohio that has been drastically changed by the opening of a gateway to a magical dimension. ... The murder victim is a dragon; the detective is a political reporter who really resents being forced to cover the story. ... Though the death of a dragon provides the impetus, the novel's really about the way this transformed world works, with elves, wizards, scrambled electronics - and an ailing city revived thanks to an influx of magic-seeking tourists."
Reviewer Consensus: Seems to be an enjoyable (though not necessarily outstanding) novel in the gritty, noir mystery camp of urban fantasy. There's another book in the series that has a draconic professor.
"Shadowrun" novels: Various.
Blurb: Shadowrun is a classic role-playing game set in the gritty near future, where cyberpunk meets magic -- megacorporations rule the cities, and shamans and mythological beasts rule the countryside. A few dragons play major roles in the setting, most notably Dunkelzahn, who ran for (and became) president before being apparently assassinated on inauguration night. The novels (like the game) focus on humanoids, but a few (notably "The Dragonheart Saga": "Stranger Souls" et.al.) explore the consequences of dragons' actions.
The Dragon Charmer (Jan Siegel, 2002)
Blurb: "Since the traumatic events in Prospero's Children (2000), Fern has rejected her extraordinary gift. But when she returns to the family's remote Yorkshire house to wed an older man she likes but doesn't love, the ancient evil forces that want to control the gift awaken. ... Finally she plucks the head of the last dragon charmer from where it hangs on the Tree of Life, hoping that it can charm the last dragon and help her save the world from the evil Azmordis."
Reviewer Consensus: The series isn't about dragons at all, but this book explores them a bit more.
Dark Heart (Margaret Weis and David Baldwin, 1999)
Blurb: "Justinian, Lord Sterling, has lived for centuries, serving an ancient entity known only as the Dragon. Lt. Sandra McCormick is a dedicated cop, a loner whose job is her refuge from a twisted past. Two loners, each stalking the other. Each destined to be the other's savior -- and downfall. For love, unexpected, unstoppable, draws them together. And love is the one vice the Dragon will not allow ..."
Reviewer Consensus: This book, from one of the Dragonlance creators and her son -- which was meant to be the first in a series, until Baldwin died and Weis decided not to continue it -- seems to be enjoyable, but the Amazon reviews are strangely reluctant to go into details. The available excerpt makes it sound like the protagonists are both humans being manipulated by "the Dragon," the main antagonist -- which isn't ideal, but worth listing I suppose.
Southern Knights #1-36 (Henry and Audrey Vogel, Comics Interview; 1983-1992)
Blurb: This inventive independent series chronicled the adventures -- and everyday lives -- of a team of powerful but unlikely superheroes based in Atlanta, Georgia (though they would ultimately end up traveling through dimensions and time). One of the team members -- who goes by "Dragon," or more often, simply "Mark" -- is a dragon who has been hiding for several hundred years in human form and believes himself to be the last of his kind.
Bax's Notes: Though it's undeservedly obscure, Southern Knights is a fantastic read -- even without the dragon angle. The superheroes have actual identities out of their costume (and Kristin doesn't even wear a costume; she fights in shorts and a T-shirt). The stories of their lives and families and daily interactions are told at least as well as their epic battles, and the characters have incredible depth for the genre. Dragon even got a four-issue mini-series to expand some of his hundreds of years of backstory. I recommend it all highly.
Poo-Poo and the Dragons (C. S. Forrester, 1942)
Blurb: After Harold Heavyside Brown (aka "Poo-Poo") finds a dragon named Horatio in a vacant lot near his house, hijinks ensue -- including the discovery of a dragoness named Ermyntrude, and ultimately, their hatching an egg. The book's about 150 pages of text with occasional drawings, meant to be read out loud to precocious youngsters (which was their original raison d'etre, as the author explains in a foreword).
Bax's Notes: The dragons in this book are endearingly goofy -- both in attitude and in illustration. Lots of innocent fun. I don't care that this book almost predates my parents; I'm raising my kids on it.
Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher (Bruce Coville, 1992)
Blurb: "One afternoon, in an effort to escape Mary Lou Hutton, Jeremy runs through alleys, side streets, and byways and finds himself in a part of town he has never seen before. He enters a small magic shop where he purchases a strange egg. A dragon that only Jeremy and Mary Lou can see enters the picture."
Reviewer Consensus: Supposedly recommended for 5th to 7th graders, but reviewers speak of reading it to children as young as 7 or 8 and/or enjoying it throughout their teens -- and it seems quite beloved by the children and their adult readers alike. Part of the "Magic Shop" series, though this is the only one to specifically focus on dragons. Rereleased in 2007 and should be widely available.
Short stories and/or other writings:
Dragon Fantastic (Greenberg and Greenberg, editors; 1992)
Blurb: "This anthology of 16 stories by some of fantasy's most popular authors celebrates the mystique of the dragon. Styles range from Mickey Zucker Reichert's somber tale of an Oriental dragonfighter and the woman who loves him ('The Champion of Dragons') to Laura Resnick's comic story of a dragon in the basement of an apartment house ('Fluff the Tragic Dragon')."
Reviewer Consensus: Not all the stories in this volume are urban fantasy, but enough of them are to be worth a look. One reviewer complained about the poor editing of the stories, but if you can get past that, the diversity of the tales probably means you'll find something you like.
The Steel Dragon Saga (M. H. Glenn, 1995-2005)
Blurb: After a soldier stationed in the tropics gets hit by lightning and gains the ability to turn into a dragon, he must decide what he truly is -- and live with the consequences of his choice.
Bax's Notes: Not published, but freely available online as a continuing series of short stories.
The Tomorrowlands Universe stories (Baxil et.al., 1998-)
Blurb: After a dragon walks through the background of a live news broadcast in late 1996, magic begins to work and people begin to shapeshift into fantastic forms. TTU stories range from the magical to the mundane, the personal to the political, as a world adjusts to The Changes.
Bax's Notes: Not (yet) published, but freely available online. A number of TTU stories feature dragons as main or major characters (these are some of mine:    ). It's a story setting I created, but it is also freely available to other writers who wish to explore urban fantasy themes. I'm always adding more information about the setting to its wiki.
Writing that deals well with Otherkin/nonhuman themes but isn't about dragons:
frameacloud several years ago compiled a really comprehensive Otherkin and Therianthrope Book List. There's also a companion LJ group, t_o_book_club. The list is several times longer than this one and has in-depth reviews and ratings of its books.
Roleplaying games in which players may choose dragon characters:
See comments to this thread. "Fireborn" and "Scales" are both urban-fantasy games centering on dragon PCs, and a few others are available in other genres.
This genre of books ("PNR" to those in the know) is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin: steamy romance novels in a setting that contains urban-fantasy-style supernatural elements. Although a number of these books do prominently contain dragons, they really aren't aiming at a draconic target market. The typical PNR dragon is a male lead whose role in the story is to dominate the heroine -- basically the traditional romance-novel lead turned up to 11 -- and to conveniently shapeshift in order to provide a source of hot, passionate human-form sex. If that's your thing, I won't judge -- but I will keep the PNR listings brief.
The "Aisling Grey, Guardian" series: "You Slay Me" (Katie MacAlister, 2004) et.al.
Blurb: "All Aisling Grey had to do was deliver a centuries old, gold dragon statue to her uncle's client in Paris, but instead she finds the woman murdered. Scouring Paris' occult community for clues, Aisling, armed with a crabby demon in the shape of a Newfoundland dog, finds herself not only mixed up in murder and magic but also tangling and tangoing with a sexy dragon." Drake Vireo quickly becomes her main flame and shows up throughout the series.
The "Silver Dragons" series: "Playing With Fire" (Katie MacAlister, 2008) et.al.
Blurb: "Gabriel Tauhou, wyvern of the silver dragons, has found the one woman who can withstand his fire. Too bad May Northcott is already bound to a demon lord. But when the demon orders May to steal one of Gabriel’s treasures—an immensely important relic of all dragonkin— Gabriel has to decide which to protect: his love or his dragons." Gabriel and May do their thing throughout the series.
Dragon Wytch (Yasmine Galenorn, 2008)
Blurb: "The D’Artigo sisters are half-human, half-Fae operatives for the Otherworld Intelligence Agency." Now Camille D'Artigo has to deal with being "claimed" by "Smoky, the sexiest dragon alive." (The author's words.) Smoky apparently shows up elsewhere in the "Sisters of the Moon" series, but this is the book dealing most directly with his relationship with Camille.
NOTE: To keep the page clean I'll be screening (=hiding) comments that only contain suggestions included in the list. Comments with unlisted books, or reviews, or discussions will be left in place.