Book Review—Lawless by Janeen Ippolito
Dragonshifter Kesia Ironfire has one goal—to redeem her past by serving the cruel dragon Pinnacle as a soldier in the dragon-human war.
Then a rogue mission to spy on a new airship explodes into sickening green smoke. The same mysterious green smoke that was present the night of Kesia’s crime. When her dragon overlords deny any involvement, she and her tactical partner Zephryn Nightstalker try to investigate–and are sentenced to death.
Still searching for answers, Kesia and Zephryn flee to the human military capital, where Captain Shance Windkeeper has been furloughed after the destruction of his airship. Eager to discover what–and who–blew up his vessel, he agrees to help Kesia and Zephryn infiltrate High Command. In exchange, Kesia must pretend to be his betrothed so Shance can escape an arranged marriage. If only she knew what ‘betrothed’ and ‘arranged marriage’ meant.
But human social customs are the least of her worries. Dark secrets surface as Kesia delves deeper–secrets that challenge the facts of her crime and undermine the war itself.
Dragon shapeshifters. Steampunk setting. Intricate magic system. Deep and complex characters.
We readers of speculative fiction are a cynical bunch. Sure, the above list of things makes the book in question sound awesome, but it’s also too good to be true, right?
Nope. Janeen Ippolito’s Lawless lives up to the hype—then goes further. The core of great storytelling is an author’s ability to deliver on promises to the reader. Ms. Ippolito makes quite a few promises in the back-cover blurb alone, but successfully delivers on every one. For example:
The dragons are…dragon-y. For lack of a better term. Ippolito’s dragons are not stock shapeshifting characters who perfectly mimic humanity and just happen to turn into dragons once in a while. For one thing, the shapeshifting has precise and intriguing rules. For another, the dragons are distinct from humans in their behavior, culture, and thought patterns (even when they’re mimicking human form). They look at the world through completely different eyes and are baffled by many human customs. This makes Kesia and Zephryn fascinating POV characters. Their alien outlook is balanced against Shance Windkeeper’s human perspective, as he struggles (humorously) to help his dragon friends fit in.
The steampunk elements are detailed and immersive. Too many books marketing themselves as steampunk just throw in the obligatory airships and clockwork without actually delving into the setting to readers’ satisfaction. Lawless does not fall into this error. It is a delightful escape into a truly steampunk world, where the unique mixture of fantasy elements and Victorian technology is fully described and has a strong influence on the plot. This is steampunk at its very best.
The romance is worthwhile and engaging. I’ll be honest—I’m not one of those people who clamors for less romance in the books I read. Maybe I’m too old-fashioned—or too young—but I think romantic elements add a lot to a story, provided that they’re not sappy and tiresome. Janeen Ippolito is very, very good at writing romance. She sets herself a unique challenge in Lawless by creating dragon characters who have no concept of human relationships or even physical intimacy. In a different author’s hands, this set-up could easily result in something tawdry and adolescent, but that’s not the case at all with this book. Sexual tension actually forms a significant element, but it feels completely warranted and never goes beyond the PG-13 level. In the end, the book makes important philosophical observations about love and lifelong commitment, and resolves the romantic subplot in an unexpected way. The words “love triangle” are generally a red flag for me, but the one in Lawless isn’t like any I’ve read before and never caused me to sigh and roll my eyes.
On that note, a quick content advisory: There’s some mild language and a few brief, non-explicit sexual references. A couple of characters are implied to be promiscuous, but this issue is examined from more than one angle and not unilaterally presented as a glamorous or positive trait. Some violence, but no excessive gore.
The highest praise I can give Lawless is that it’s everything it says on the tin, and more. It kept me riveted from the first page all the way to the end, and left me very eager for further books in the series. I highly recommend it for all readers of fantasy.
And if you’re not convinced yet…did I mention the dragons?