Lawless by Janeen Ippolito – A Review

LawlessCover

Screenwriters will often tell you that a story stands and falls on its premise – the same, in my mind, holds true for novelists. Lawless is no exception, and it was the premise that instantly drew me in.

The world of Lawless – a place called Sekastra – is one of both magic and technology, seamlessly combining the sci-fi and fantasy genres in a ‘steampunk’ approach to worldbuilding that is nonetheless highly original. Within this imagined world, two dominant races – humans and dragons – have been at war for decades. The main character is herself a dragon – in this world a race of shapeshifters that are not that far removed from humanity. A dark secret lies buried deep within her past along with an explosive revelation regarding the origins of the war itself, and it is the search for these that drives the story. As a work of Christian fantasy, hints are given of an interesting Creation story in the background – one that I look forward to seeing further revealed in future installments.

While broadly described as ‘steampunk’, Sekastra is a richly imagined world that turns out to be so much more. It is full of original terminology and geography, featuring a unique civilization centered around city-states known as “Scepters” (each devoted to a specific pursuit such as Justice, Knowledge, Industry, Commerce, Pleasure, etc). As the story of Lawless unfolds, these Scepters (at one time united under a single world order) have been divided between the Pinnacle (a Dragon regime) and the Congruency (a military alliance of the human city-states under a High Command). I immediately wanted to know more about this world and its history, with the descriptions given instantly bringing out the political science nerd inside me. I also found the terms “Pinnacle” and “Congruency” to be far more elegant terms than the awkward tropes of “Human Federation” and “Dragon Empire” that are common throughout much of sci-fi and fantasy.

I also liked the book’s approach to “magic,” which is, unfortunately, a common source of controversy for critics of Christian fantasy. In this case, virtually all such issues are side-stepped – Sekastra simply possesses a different set of physical and biological laws than apply in our world, with all characters being born with unique “Talents” (inherent abilities that can include influencing the weather, shaping metals, sensing chemicals, etc). Dragon biology is further described as including a “heart-flame” and linked to a “Nether” pocket dimension that is the source of their shape-shifting abilities. These phenomena are described in highly “scientific” terms that indicate their status as common realities of this world – no more significant than those of ours. The very term “magic” only appears once within the entire book and in a context that has nothing to do with the supernatural:

It had been magical – and he didn’t believe in magic. Who knew having a friendship with a female was possible, much less enjoyable?

This analysis is, of course, derived from what is only the first book in a series, so it’s possible some more explicitly supernatural elements may yet make an appearance. If so, that will be just fine with me. Most of the arguments against this story element are based on fear and unthinkingly equivocate fictional “magic” with real-life witchcraft and sorcery (my own further analysis on this topic is available here ). I find it an artful approach, however, when such a loaded, equivocal catch-all term is dispensed with in favor of more specific ones.

Perhaps the most intriguing story element for me personally was the idea of a fluid demarcation between humans and dragons, with both species being able to interbreed and produce offspring (one human character even references a dragon-derived lineage in her own family background). This allows for the use of a dragon as the main character as well as a subplot of romantic tension. I’ve found some of my favorite stories to be those with fully-developed non-human characters in a protagonist’s role. One my favorite novels is Stephenie Meyer’s The Host, which has largely become the standard by which I measure this approach. Lawless approaches it beautifully. The protagonist, Kesia, is fully developed to the point where we almost – but do not quite – forget she is not human. In fact, within this storyline, it is heavily implied that both races are simply two sides of the same divinely-created coin – a fictional concept that is, in the most straightforward terms, really cool.

The story itself is fun and enjoyable, with a character-based secret that gradually unfolds with bit a twist towards the end. It was also delightfully humorous to observe the “culture shock” of a dragon coming face to face with many common human concepts and customs for the first time. The dialogue and narrative is also written in simple, understandable language that will appeal to a broad audience of multiple ages. 

Some minor criticisms are as follows. The story moves forward at a quick pace, but sometimes does so at the expense of logical sense (I found myself wondering why certain characters would so easily let themselves be led into certain courses of action or immediately accept certain statements at face value). We get intimate looks into the inner thoughts of the main characters, but it sometimes seems as if they have little control over their feelings – I had a hard time seeing one character as the military officer he’s supposed to be. We also get constant references to a war that has supposedly been raging for decades but of which we see virtually nothing aside from the “intrigue” involving the main characters. Pretty much all of these, I think could have been fixed if the narrative were a bit longer, thereby allowing for further complexity and development. 

There is also light profanity and some sexual references (all either of the marital kind or in reference to the dissolute lifestyle of a character in need of moral/spiritual reform). None of these are gratuitous or graphic, but are something for more sensitive readers to keep in mind. 

Caveats and all, however, I would recommend Lawless for anyone looking for a quick, fun read full of adventure, fantasy and derring-do. A beautifully imaginary tale by an innovative author! I would recommend it not only to readers but to prospective authors looking for imaginative stimulus. I invite them all to explore the world of Sekastra! 

– Review by Alexander Preston


Endorsements:

“Lawless is a tightly woven tale of dragons, political intrigue, and romance, with two sexy male leads, a competent but vulnerable heroine, and all the steampunk and dragons you could desire. The story starts off with a literal explosion and never stops moving. On the way we’re introduced to an intriguing world and a story that satisfies but hints at more to come. Definitely recommended.”
H.L. Burke, award-winning author of the Nyssa Glass steampunk series and The Dragon and the Scholar series

“Steampunk with dragon-human shifters–that concept was all it took for me to fall in love with Lawless in the first chapter. What made me stay in love were the characters, each with an intriguing history, and the rich story world, filled with original magic and mechanics. Looking forward to experiencing more of this series!”
Kat Heckenbach, author of paranormal romance Relent and magical adventure The Toch Island Chronicles


Don’t miss the Lawless Launch Party this Wednesday, Oct. 4!

Lawless Launch Party Banner


Meet the Author – Janeen Ippolito

Janeen Ippolito

Janeen Ippolito is two authors for the price of one! She creates writing resources and writes speculative fiction with monsters, misfits, and mushy stuff. She’s also an experienced author coach, editor, teacher, and the Fearless Leader (president) of Uncommon Universes Press. In her spare time, she enjoys sword-fighting, reading, geeky TV, and brownie batter. A lifelong misfit, she believes different is beautiful and that everyone has the ability to tell their story. Two of her goals are eating fried tarantulas and traveling to Antarctica. This extroverted writer loves getting connected, so find her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and at her two websites: janeenippolito.com and writeinsideout.com

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