Keeping It Real

by Justina Robson

Cover image

Series: Quantum Gravity #1
Publisher: Pyr
Copyright: 2006
Printing: 2007
ISBN: 1-59102-539-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 334

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The world of Keeping It Real was much like ours originally, or at least that's what most people believe. (There is some debate.) But in 2015 an explosion at the Superconducting Supercollider in Texas (which was apparently built in this reality) changed the world. No one can remember for certain how things used to be, but now the human universe exists alongside five others: an elemental plane, a plane inhabited by beings closely akin to elves, another inhabited by demons, a realm of the dead, and one of faery. Humans have opened complicated diplomatic ties with the other inhabitable planes, although the elves are not particularly friendly, and life goes on, but technology is now strongly mixed with magic of various types, and inhabitants of the other planes often come to Earth.

In this world, Lila Black is supposedly a bodyguard and is actually an undercover agent for the government. Now a cyborg after her body was rebuilt after being nearly killed in Alfheim (the home plane of the elves), her current assignment is to infiltrate a rock band that has the absolutely unheard-of property of having an elvish lead singer. Elves do perform music occasionally on Earth, but never rock. And certainly not the way Zal does. Her opportunity comes when Zal starts receiving threatening letters, letters full of magic and apparently from other elves, threatening him with dire consequences if he doesn't return to Alfheim.

If I had to pick a subgenre this was the closest to, I'd have to say urban fantasy. There's a kick-ass female protagonist (although tight third instead of first-person), with unusual powers and lots of baggage, and a mysterious male semi-adversary, and of course a tricky and dangerous love affair and some significant overtones of romance. At the start, I thought it was going to be a bit too much urban fantasy, as Lila reacts romantically to Zal rather too easily and the early book seems to focus on a bad-boy romance (with hints of resonance with vampires, such as Zal's ability to move undetected). There are parts of this I liked, particularly Lila's investigation of strangeness at the studio, but the dynamic between her and Zal didn't gel for me at the start of the book.

But a little more than a third of the way through, Keeping It Real takes an abrupt and surprising turn and gets much deeper and much better. After a lovely set piece (motorcycle dueling!), the setting of the story changes drastically, the romance angle gets considerably more complex, and Robson's world opens up to the reader in intriguing and satisfying ways. It's rare that a book does this effective and complete of a shift while staying true to all the characters and throwing what happened previously into a new light. The character interactions also become more nuanced and more unusual, leaving the semi-stock bad-boy romance behind for examinations of trust and cultural understanding that I found surprisingly moving.

The highlight of this book is the world-building, particularly the conflict between Lila's complicated relationship with technology and the elven hatred of technology and focus on nature and natural magic. Rather than merging both together or putting them in simplistic opposition, Robson explores both on their own terms and goes deep into the emotional reactions and difficult shifts of frames of reference required for cross-cultural understanding. She does this without making the characters seem either petty or narrow-minded, which is quite a trick. And this is interesting stuff: Lila's reactions to Alfheim, and interactions with its magic, maintain her earlier identity while adding complications and additional ways of seeing herself. Her existing abilities get new implications and resonances without being supplanted. And Robson juggles six realms and four very different species while keeping them nicely distinct and individually interesting (although in-depth exploration of several is left to future books).

This is clearly the first book of a series; many questions are left unresolved, and Lila's life, at the end of the book, has gotten much more complicated. But the emotional arc of this story is complete, and while there's clearly more development to come, I felt satisfied by the ending. That's another tricky balancing act that Robson pulls off very well.

The beginning of Keeping It Real has a bit too much stock urban fantasy and uninteresting romance, but stick with it; it gets both better and more unique, and the world-building is more comprehensive and more complex than nearly all urban fantasy I've read. This is one of the better books I've read recently and a great start to the series. I'll definitely be reading the next one.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-10-13

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21