Selling Out (Quantum Gravity, Book 2)
by Justina Robson
Cover Artist: Larry Rostant
Review by Juliet McKenna
Pyr Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781591025979
Date: 31 October 2007 List Price $15.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
[Editor's Note: This review originally ran in our April 2007 issue. The paperback is being released this month.]
In Keeping It Real: Quantum Gravity #1, the first in her Quantum Gravity series, Justina Robson put a unique spin on the debate over where to draw the line between science fiction and fantasy. She erased it. In her near-future world, 2015 saw a quantum explosion that has linked the Earth of our reality to the elven, fey, demonic and elemental realms, not to mention the death dimension. Now a band like Mode-X with an elf as lead singer and faery backing vocals can be a world-wide pop sensation.
In the hands of a less talented writer this could be a disaster, but Justina Robson proves splendidly adept at devising rational underpinnings for the most uncanny concepts. Logic and weirdness combine to make perfect sense of this brave new world. She interweaves story and setting with a light touch and a skillful blend of the familiar and the startling. As always, she writes with a deft instinct for which questions need immediate answers and which are better left to tantalize the reader that little bit longer. Add to that a wicked sense of humor and a finely tuned sensibility for the erotic rather than the graphic when it comes to sex, and the results are richly entertaining.
In Keeping It Real, megastardom has its good and bad points, so special agent Lila Black was assigned to protect Zal, the charismatic elven star, from threat of kidnap or worse. As she uncovered the truth behind the threats to his life in a universe where myth and science mesh seamlessly together, she also came to terms with the reality of her own existence. Because Lila is now a fusion of humanity and machine. All but killed when a diplomatic mission to Alfheim went horribly wrong, the technology was available to rebuild her, bodily at least. But mental invulnerability doesn't necessarily go hand in hand with awesome new physical attributes like the rocket jets in her heels or the choice of guns and blades concealed in her forearms.
Selling Out picks up exactly where the first book ended, which enables Justina Robson to open with a concise summary of events thus far as Lila Black is debriefed by her supervisors. These are the inscrutably elven Sarasilien and Cara Delaware, one of the human operatives keen to learn the rules now that the intelligence game must be played over six dimensions. Lila has to balance telling them what they need to know against keeping her own secrets, most notably the new blend of magic and machinery within her own body. Because one thing seriously hampering humanity in this new reality is lack of aetheric power. But keeping secrets isn't so easy with an artificial intelligence running alongside your own intellect, linking you to vast computing resources at the same time it's feeding back all manner of information to the people who rebuilt you.
Fortunately her supervisors are more interested in Zal, who has managed to blend his innate elven magic with demonic powers. Everyone wants to know how he's done this. Lila is sent to Demonia to find out. She's supposedly researching for a tourist guide to this seductive dimension devoted to the sensual, the beautiful, the artistic. Her guide is Sorcha, demon singer, Zal's adoptive sister and, essentially for Lila, her instructor in the complex honor and vendetta codes that govern life, death, love and dueling in this lethal realm. Much as the demons admire Lila, for her killing skills among other attributes, she can expect no mercy if she transgresses. Unfortunately, assorted folk in various dimensions are working to make sure she does just that as they pursue their own convoluted agendas.
Keeping It Real was a satisfactorily complete book in itself, at the same time leaving scope for a sequel. Selling Out is in some ways more open-ended with less sense of conclusion. The cast of characters expands; we meet Lila's sister and learn a good deal more about her earlier life, which played as much a part in making her who she is now as the engineers who rebuilt her. We see far more of the story from Zal's perspective as his attempt to help Lila lands him in more trouble than even he can handle. Her partner from the security agency, the catlike fey Malachi, takes on an increasingly important role as he pursues the scent of intrigue against her.
For Lila, this book is perhaps more about the journey than the destination. Where she was coming to terms with her altered state in the first of the series, now she's exploring just what she can do with her new powers. She's discovering that with great power comes great responsibility and, at the same time, the potential for considerable influence for good and ill. She faces hard choices as she attracts both allies and enemies by simply existing. This is a darker book than the first, certainly more intense, and that's not just because the action takes Lila to the demonic realm. Lies and deceit are at least openly acknowledged there while being more treacherously concealed among the elves and the humans.
By the final chapter, Lila has paid an agonizing price to learn hard lessons about the true nature of Hell and free will. The story has traveled to dimensions only briefly referenced before as well as through the voids between where ghostly terrors lurk. Justina Robson's writing is fast, lucid and engaging throughout, vivid with inventive detail and sharp with unexpected twists snagging the unwary reader. As the story concludes, Lila and her allies realize their discoveries promise still more demanding challenges ahead. I can't wait to see how they'll tackle what comes next.