Keeping It Real by Justina Robson
Published by Gollancz, May 2006.
Review by Hobbit.
You know, I should’ve had this one sorted just by looking at the cover.
The front of the book (as you can see on the front page) shows a slim, young, attractive, red haired, silver-eyed, leather-clad female posing seductively with her right arm (and no doubt other parts of her body to boot) clearly mechanical, with enough types of firepower sticking out of it to destroy a battlestar. And the title? Keeping It Real.
You see, having read this excellent romp, I now realise that, unknown to me before, Justina Robson, author of previous mind-bendingly technical, complex and profound books such as Mappa Mundi and Natural History, has a sense of humour.
This was a shock. This book is Justina ‘out to play’. And boy, does she have fun!
The story starts as an attention-grabbing mix of SF and Fantasy. In 2015, the accidental release of the Quantum Bomb changes the world – no, universe – as we know it. Six overlapping and partially connected realities are created. Earth is altered in many ways, some subtle, others less so. The planet becomes Otopia, where magic is real and figures of fantasy – sprites, ghosts – now really exist. There is also Zoomenon, the land of the elements, where things are just so much brighter and Elementals exist. Thirdly, there is Alfheim, an Eden-like paradise and also the land of the elves, currently the participants of an uneasy alliance with Otopia. Fourthly, Demonia, (from where – you guessed it, demons come from), adept in magic. Fifthly, there is mysterious Thanatopia (the ‘land of the dead’, from which no human has ever been known to return from), and lastly, Faery (again – guess who comes from there?) – issuing tourist visas since 2018.
This novel, set in 2021, deals with the character of Lila Black, an undercover agent working in Intelligence and Reconnaissance (InCon) for the Otopian National Security Agency (NSA). An unfortunate incident between Earth and Alfhelm led to Lila being declared dead to her family and friends, and being so badly hurt that many parts of her body – her left arm, her legs – were substituted with state of the art replacements. Now with an atomic-powered set of cybernetic limbs, a built-in AI, and enough whizbang gadgets to take on anything, Lila is clearly a girl not easily ignored. A person who has clearly had her share of difficulties, Lila is outwardly tough, though also sexy and charming, but perhaps not the sort of girl you might want as a first date. She gives the concept of ‘high maintenance’ a new twist!
Her mission at the beginning of this book is to act as a covert bodyguard for Zal, lead singer of the latest pop sensation, The No Shows. He is also a renegade elf, an outsider on Otopia who is also a member of Elven royalty, being sent death threats and assassins in fairly equal measure because his unorthodox manners allegedly threaten the demolition of Elven society and the uneasy truces existing between all of the Realms. ‘Elves don’t rock’, his soon-to-be manager quips on first hearing about him.
Things change quickly when our heroine makes some costly mistakes. She becomes involved in playing The Game, (an elven process of challenge and forfeit, the conclusion being summed up as ‘Victory, Defeat, or Death.’) with Zal, gets cursed, and even demonically possessed.
So – think an enthusiastic melange of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Meredith Gentry, Tad Williams’ War of the Flowers, Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat, a touch of Marianne dePierre’s Parrish Plessis, even The Bionic Woman or Transformers, and you get an idea of how much fun this book is.
However, though this is a tall tale, Justina infuses this yarn with humour, intelligence and, a little surprisingly for such a fun book, depth. This could’ve all been such a mess. The cover, though a fairly accurate description of the character, also brings to mind a feeling that ‘I’ve read it before’. etc etc. Having now read the book, of course, such a simple summary is clearly wrong.
What works here is that as well as the fun, Justina actually avoids a lot of the clichés. Yes, Lila is a cyberbabe, hypercharged with enough power to destroy buildings. But she is scarred – physically, mentally and psychologically, because in the book Lila is still having issues and having difficulties in coming to terms with her new body mental image and her mechanical body.
Tellingly, Lila, being new to the NSA and clearly still recovering from her extensive remodel, also makes mistakes. At least two of the situations in the book could’ve been avoided had Lila made other choices – a flawed heroine.
Thus although a relatively short book, Justina manages to cover great ideas quickly and relatively simply. And what starts deceptively simple actually becomes quite complex – good becomes bad, bad becomes grey; not easy to do in such a slim volume.
Of the bigger concepts, Justina examines an idea covered in some of her earlier books, – the idea of identity – as well as that of many of the other usual big issues – loyalty, revenge, fidelity and love.
Despite being fairly simple in structure compared to some of her earlier works, Justina gains kudos for having a lot of the background clearly thought out. Her magic-logic structures are well considered, and Justina manages to show, not tell, the (often very different) realms convincingly, staying just the right side of believability. Not always easy with such fantastical elements.
In the end, though it’s a difficult one to categorise, it’s perhaps best summed up as a romance. This might put some readers off, but it really shouldn’t. If it is a romance, it is a romance done with humour, skill and aplomb, (and some raunchy sex in places); a really good page-turner. I finished it in a matter of days.
Pleasingly, I was left wanting more. As it is the first of a series, I very much look forward to the next.
Hobbit, May 2006.