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Issue #130 - June 2006

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Sexy Cyborg Rescues Elf Rock Star

By Karina Meerman

I had read about Justina Robson and she was on my list of Ďmust read authorsí. When I saw Keeping It Real in an English bookstore in Amsterdam I fell for it immediately. The gorgeous babe on the cover is a "girl cyborg secret agent with a troubled past". I read the first sentence and the book was mine. This was exactly what I needed: technology, rock music and magic. The elves in this book are not fluffy at all, no maíam. Though to special agent Lila Black, initially, they all look the same: "ears (pointy, long), hair (lots of it, long) and expression (aloof, controlled, pole-up-the-ass)."

As the result of an explosion at the Superconductor Supercollider in Texas in 2015, all particles of space-time as we know it were shifted into something entirely new. The fabric of the universe was altered, "as if changing cotton into silk". No one remembers what Earth used to be like exactly, but the world now has six different dimensions that lie alongside each other and sometimes overlap. Otopia, the human world; Zoomenon, where the Elementals live; Alfheim, of the elves; Demonia, home of the demons; Thanatopia, the realm of the dead; and Faery, that claims to have always been close with the old Earth and has issued tourist visas since 2018. Relationships with the other dimensions are not always terribly good, and in 2021 (the year of the book), "an uneasy state of affairs exists between Alfheim and the other realms."

Lila Black is 21 years old. Severely damaged during a diplomatic mission to Alfheim, she has been restored to part girl, part machine. The girl-part is very uncomfortable about her past and her present situation and worries about girl-things, like "god I must look hideous". The machine-part makes her a formidable soldier, with a small arsenal of fancy weapons hidden in her body armour. She also has "an AI-self", like a computer network extension of her own brain but quite possibly with an identity of its own. The combination of proper girl and kick-ass fighting machine is an interesting one; she has loads of attitude, despite her insecurity.

The Bike didnít talk. There were versions that did but Lila didnít want more machines in her head than were already there.

Her first assignment after her recovery is to play bodyguard to the famous elfin rock star, Zal. His band (with pixies in the backing vocals) is the hottest act around, which is rather unusual as everyone knows that "elves donít rock". But there is more to Zal that is unusual, as we find out during the story. Lila has to guard him because Zal receives magical threats. Very early on, Lila and Zal get involved in a Game. I really like the idea of that: sometimes you canít help yourself around certain people and seem to be compelled to act. I can rest assured now; it is a Game and has nothing to do with subconscious desires. A Game is wild magic drawing two beings together, forcing them to play out a scenario until one of them wins, or dies. Elves are known to easily trap humans to play Games. "You may end up in a duel, or promising away your worldly goods, or falling in love, or slaved to a duty not of your own choosing". The wild magic also plays by rules of its own, and some Games are extremely hard to get out of. Lila quickly realises she and Zal have business other than bodyguarding.

Quite quickly the threats against Zal escalate. Lila gets to show off all her skills (both verbal and military), but despite her fire power Zal is abducted to Alfheim, where he supposedly has to play his part in an ancient prophecy. In order to rescue him, Lila has to accept the help of Dar, the elf responsible for her being as she is now. So can she trust him? They journey to the heart of Alfheim, where Zal is kept, and pick up the ghost of an elfin necromancer along the way. At this point in the story it began to feel as though too much was happening at once, and I was being instructed very quickly in elfin relationship etiquette. The ghost, Tath, seemed a neat trick to get Lila to do magical stuff she otherwise couldnít. There is a lot of interaction between Lila and Dar, and Dar and Tarth, and sometimes all three of them together. When they all get to where the final action is, relations become even more complex. Or is it fast-paced? Sometimes I canít tell.

Summarising: Lila meets Zal again, we learn about the Big Secret, and there is an action-packed finale. Although this is Quantum Gravity Book 1, the story is actually complete and I got to like Lila Black so much, Iíll definitely read Book 2. Lila is tough and vulnerable at the same time, she kicks ass, and is not afraid to make Lord of the Rings-jokes. Or have sex with elves.

Keeping It Real - Justina Robson - Gollancz - trade paperback

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Keeping It Real - Justina Robson - Gollancz

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