Keeping it Real
published in 2006
Justina Robson is one of those writers I’ve known about for years, but have never read anything by so far. One of the new breed of British science fiction writers who popped up around the turn of the millennium, her first couple of novels found critical acclaim, each being nominated for the Clarke or BSFA Award. Unfortunately popular success seemed to elude her however, until she started the Quantum Gravity series, of which Keeping it Real is the first novel.
It is also the first novel of hers I’ve read. A high concept description of it would be urban fantasy meets cyberpunk, a bit like the old Shadowrun role playing game but much less naff. Personally I’ve always thought cyberpunk was urban fantasy’s science fiction’s mirror counterpart anyway, so the combination seems logical. As Robson explains it in the prologue, an unknown “quantum catastrophe” in the Superconducting Superconductor in Texas in 2015 had torn reality into six realms: Earth, now called Otopia, Zoomenon, the realm of Elementals, Alfheim (elves country), Demonia, home of demons, Faery, home of fairies and finally Thanatopia, supposedly the realm of the dead though no human being has ever visited. The catastrophe was quickly dubbed the “Quantum Bomb” on Otopia, with the big question that keeps human philsophers and scientists awake at night being whether the Bomb really recreated reality or just made it visible to Otopia.
Such questions isn’t what keeps Lila Black (21) awake at night. Wounded, tortured and almost killed during a clandestine mission to Alfheim two years, she has been rebuild, better, stronger, faster but with added loss of humanity, as well as being cut off from her family, who thinks she died. Now she’s assigned to her first mission and for all her build-in weaponry and fusion powered systems, she’s less than confident in her own abilities. Especially because it involves playing bodyguard to an elf rock star called Zal, who has gotten death threats because elven don’t rock and if they do, loads of people, elven and humans both, don’t like it.
After her experiences in Alfheim Lila is understandably not too enamoured of elves, though she strives hard to hide her feelings, does her best not to be charmed by Zal’s charisma. There is the additional complication of being ensnared into an elven Game, a danger that’s always present when humans and elfs mix. And with the sexual tension between Zal and Lila soon thick enough to cut with a knife, it’s clear what a Game would be about if she entered it.
At first Keeping it Real‘s plot seems fairly predictable, until Robson gets it properly going, when we quickly learn that the reasons why Zal needs a bodyguard are a bit more complicated than just having recieved death threats. Instead he’s at the centre of an elaborate scheme dreamed up by some of the more conservative powers in Alfheim, who want nothing less than to sunder all access to the other five realms. Lila finds herself in the middle of all this, fighting to keep Zal and herself alive.
As a heroine, Lila Black is, depending on your perspective, cursed with awesomeness or blessed with suck. She has a fusion heart, lots of weaponry hidden in her body and titanium bones, but she feels she has lost her humanity. It’s not an unusual position for a heroine of a modern urban fantasy to find herself in of course, but Robson makes Lila’s internal turmoil and despair convincing, which is the greatest strength of Keeping it Real.
It is what makes me want to read the next book in the series.