Sunday, 22 April 2007

Keeping It Real by Justina Robson

Keeping It Real is the first novel in the Quantum Gravity series by British SF author Justina Robson. Robson is a noted author of hard SF novels such as Silver Screen and Mappa Mundi, but for her latest project she has ventured into Science Fantasy, giving us a world where cyborgs and elves coexist with fairies and advanced AIs.

In 2015 the Quantum Bomb exploded. An accident at an atom-smasher has fractured reality and opened Earth - now called Otopia - to waves of immigration from other dimensions, home to demons, fairies, elves and elementals. It is now 2021 and Lila Black, a special operative condemned to live as a cyborg after losing her limbs on a dangerous mission, has been assigned as bodyguard to Zal, a charismatic elven rock star. Zal's decision to live among humans and do unelven things such as eat meat and exist as a celebrity has made him many enemies among his own people in Alfheim, some of whom have made threats against him. Black has to protect Zal from death or capture whilst uncovering secrets that threaten the relationships between the realms.

Keeping It Real is a book with a lot of excellent ideas. The combination of SF ideas and fantasy tropes works pretty well for the most part and the plot fairly clips along, as it has to in a relatively short (270-page) book. However, there is no denying that the central idea is pretty zany, and the reader is probably expecting a zany, funny book to explore it. This isn't what you get with Keeping It Real. This is a serious book which treats the central daftness of its concept with grim severity. There is some humour in the book - the demon bouncers for example - but overall this is a mostly laughter-free zone.

This wouldn't matter if the characters are likable and interesting. They are not. When she's not dwelling on her horrific injuries, being cut off from her parents and her somewhat tedious 'Game' relationship with Zal, Lila Black is an intriguing character. Unfortunately this is in only about a quarter of the book. The rest of the time her character is engaged in moody introspection about how awful it is to be welded into a metal body with enough firepower to level a small city secreted about your person. Zal is completely unlikeable from the second you meet him to the very last page of the book: a selfish hedonistic egotist with no redeemable features at all. Some of the other characters were much more intriguing - Black being forced to work alongside a rival intelligence agent who was responsible for her injuries is an interesting plotline - but with the two central characters being rather unsympathetic, this made engaging with the novel very hard work.

Luckily, the story kicks into gear towards the end, after the action moves from Otopia to Alfheim. The last 50 pages or so are much faster-paced and you do find yourself drawn into the action. However, for most readers I fear this improvement will come too late in the day to keep them interested.

Keeping It Real (**½) is published in UK by Gollancz and by Pyr in the USA. A sequel, Selling Out, is published by Gollancz on 17 May 2007.

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