Keeping It Real: Quantum Gravity:book 1
by Justina Robson
Cover Artist: Larry Rostant
Review by Ernest Lilley
Pyr Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 1591025397
Date: 06 March, 2007 List Price $15.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Lila Black used to be a pretty girl, but that was before she had her arms and legs ripped off by an elvish interrogator and delivered back to her human world intel agency more dead than alive. So, in the best tradition of these things, they rebuilt her with cyborg battle ready parts and a Mr. Fusion heart. Unfortunately for her they either took away too much or left too much intact, depending on your point of view, because her emotions are all still quite intact, just jumbled up in a ball of revenge, remorse and oh yes...love. Now back in the field to protect an elvish rock star she's got to come to terms with who she is before she can save her charge, and of course, the world as we know it. Well, maybe not quite as we know it...
I have a love/hate relationship with bad ass cyborg femmes fatales, and Lila Black is no exception. She "used" to be pretty, but she's got some body image problems on account of her new cyborg legs, arms, and fusion reactor power plant, courtesy of a run in with an especially mean elf. Yes, elf. Evidentially the Texas supercollider caused a quantum tear in the fabric of space, or a fundamental shift in the nature of reality, and now we've got multiverses with elves, demons, elementals and fairies. Though the author is suitably referential to the body of extent literature with suitable LOTR and Neuromancer and Six-Million dollar Man comments, the magical elements often come off as more reasonable than the mechano ones. Her hero's biggest danger? A magical entanglement with the elfin Rock Star she's supposed to be protecting which can only be resolved by one of them falling in love an lust with the other. Granted that he's hot, a major rock star, a highborn elf, and part demon...but Lila might just take the escape clause, which means she'd never love again. But for a cyborg working for a secret government agency, love is just baggage you don't need anyway...isn't it?
Off stage, or before the book begins, Lila was an operative investigating goings on in the elvish portion of the multiverse that we'd ripped open with a giant supercollider accident. She was caught at it and her partner killed, though she wasn't so lucky. After lengthy and magical torture, she was dumped back on her agency's doorstep with her limbs ravaged and as they say, barely alive. Rebuilt to become a super-agent Lila now has a miniature fusion reactor for a heart and limbs that pretty much let her leap over a tall opponent, if not an entire building, in a single bound. Among the various stereotypes that the author invokes is the notion that in order to be effective she has to let everyone she knew think she'd died, and so she watches her friends and family wistfully as they go on with their lives. While it may add angst to the character, I don't see what else it does that's useful.
Lila gets activated to guard an elf, though she's still psychically reeling from her last experience with that race. This is a special elf though, a bona fide rockstar named Zal, lead singer of the "NoShows" a band made up of various members of the different magical multiverses. If you don't associate elves with rock, you're right in tune with the author, and the fact that Zal is a hard core rocker is only one of the things that make him unique among elves. The fact that he's part demon helps too. And that he's the key to ripping the tears in the continuum that were started by our supercollider open even farther.
Elves and humans turn out to have an interesting dynamic, called "games", which they enter into more by compulsion than volition. When you are entangled with an elf in a game you're drawn to fulfill some metaphoric relationship in order for the game to be concluded. Naturally the last thing Lila wants is to get tangled up with an elf, so she's less than thrilled when she realizes that Zal and her are playing a game of love and surrender with each other.
Lila foils a few attempts on Zal's life by elves, taking some damage to herself in the process, and pokes around trying to uncover who is out there stalking her charge and why. Before she can figure it out though, Zal is abducted, and she finds herself teamed with none other than Dar, the elf that tortured her and left her with her ruined body. Together they must work to recover Zal, keep his capturers from using him as a magical key, and incidentally get him to his next concert on time.
I'm not nearly as much in love with this book as I wanted to be. I kept trying to decide if I had a bias against the cyberpunk-urban fantasy fusion that Justina Robson is trying to forge, but in the end I don't think that's it so much as that her main character annoys me.
Surely we've all wondered what fun it would be to stand against the army of Mordor with modern weapons and a scriptwriter that let us use them. Lila gets to live that fantasy on an extended journey through the elf reality, and it works fairly well.
But I never get the feeling that the author knows where her character is supposed to be going. She's introduced with a lot of back-story about how much she hates the elf that maimed her…and then she's happy to romp around the forest with him in order to save Zal. Since he assures her that he only tortured her to save her life, which is warped but plausible, one supposes, she's happy to let bygones be bygones. Personally, if any of you are taking notes, anyone who tortures me and rips my arms and legs from their sockets so that they can deposit me still alive wherever I came from had better hope I don't come back as a bionic super-agent. I can hold a grudge really well, even if I actually believe it was for my own good. Lila doesn't seem to have that capacity.
One thing I did enjoy in the Lila/Dar team was the kinky elf/human sex scene. Actually, that's not what I was thinking of, as it annoyed me along with the whole getting over it deal. No, I liked the author's examination of the old magically bless sword concept, extended to Lilia's cyborg body. Speaking of her body and inconsistencies, though Justina makes a big deal about how much elves loath machines, it doesn't stop any of them from regarding her as sexually desirable. There are some noises made about her as an abomination, but only by female elves really. Time and time again I get the feeling that the author is feeling her way along and changes the rules whenever she needs to get out of a problematic plot point.
As I said earlier, I'm not against the magic/techno fusion. Last issue I reviewed The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross, which does an excellent job of it. Try though I might, I just wasn't able to believe that the characters in Keeping it Real were living up to the title of the book.