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Keeping It Real cover

I haven’t encountered Justina Robson’s work before, but have heard a lot about her, and looked forward to reviewing her latest book with some interest. Robson is a British writer whose short stories have appeared since the mid-1990s in magazines such as the Third Alternative and a number of original anthologies. But it’s her novels that have really attracted attention: her first novel, Silver Screen was short-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1999, as was Mappa Mundi the following year, while Natural History was runner-up for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 2003, and Living Next Door to the God of Love has won considerable acclaim and was runner-up for the British Science Fiction Award; she is now viewed as one of the Rising Stars of British SF.

Keeping It Real is a less than stern rebuttal to the opinions expressed by some publishers and pundits that SF readers want to read SF, fantasy readers want fantasy, and thriller readers want neither. Instead we have elvish rockers mixing it with AIs and stalkers in a book that attempts not so much the mixing of genres as the annihilation of the divides between them.

Keeping It Real is set five years after a reactor meltdown has opened up gateways into alternate worlds where magic, not science, holds sway. Lila Black is a young special agent working for the Odonian Security Agency (a combination of FBI, CIA, and Interpol), assigned to protect the lead singer of a rock group. The group's manager is concerned for the singer’s safety after receiving a series of cryptic, sinister notes, and Lila goes undercover to assume the guise of a bodyguard.

The band’s lead singer is an elf, while Lila is an agent who has survived a bomb blast and been rebuilt with enough upgrades to render her humanity questionable to both herself and the other races, which view her prosthetics as abominations. This new mission brings her into contact with elves for the first time since she was wounded.

The first few chapters are spent building the dynamic between Lila and her client, Zal, who true to his rock star image is moody, unwilling to cooperate, and clearly fascinated by his bodyguard. There is Unresolved Sexual Tension by the bucket-load, and given that Robson is not afraid to shy away from clichés (albeit writing about them with tongue firmly embedded in cheek), the reader is left in no doubt that sooner or later, the UST will be clearly and unequivocally resolved.

When the first attempt is made on Zal’s life, the pace of the book picks up considerably, and Robson starts to fill out Lila’s character. It quickens further and becomes especially interesting when they cross into the other realms, when the fantasy elements of the book take over from the more hi-tech James Bond-esque elements.

Lila has a huge backstory for a twenty-one-year-old, perhaps too much to be entirely credible, and my one serious complaint is that Robson chooses to tell little of it until a third of the way through the story, leaving the reader to try to puzzle together what’s happened from hints and clues. Plot demands notwithstanding, Robson would have done better to have drip-fed Lila’s experiences through to the reader, because once her backstory has been told, her character makes much better sense, and what seem to be whininess and self-absorption on first read-through are perfectly understandable in light of Lila’s history.

Her aversion to elves and "wild" magic—that is, magic that has leaked in from other realms and affects those in certain mood states—derives from her last mission before she was critically injured. The elf responsible for her injuries reappears and Lila suddenly finds her assumptions about both him and elves in general turned on their heads. Neither Zal or his would-be assassin are what they seem, and Lila is tested to her limits to survive the forthcoming showdown with the villains.

Keeping It Real is the most densely plotted fantasy novel I’ve read since Roger Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles. Robson does a good job making elvish society as complex and factional as any human political system, and notwithstanding my reservations about Lila’s age and experience, she makes a credible and sympathetic überspy for the latter two-thirds of the book. But what makes the book really interesting are Robson’s efforts to give magic logical underpinnings. In that respect, she does a fine job of comparing and contrasting spells and technoweapons systems.

Even though I experienced a certain level of déjà vu while reading it, Keeping It Real is a fun and enjoyable book—and perhaps I’m being unfair to Robson about predictability and using standard tropes: few people complain about Terry Pratchett using standard fantasy elements for his own ends.

Keeping It Real should add to Robson’s growing reputation, and deservedly so; it’s an excellent first instalment to a new series, an enjoyable and fast-paced story with enough originality to make me look forward to the second volume.

Colin Harvey's latest novel, Lightning Days, is due out at the end of July from Swimming Kangaroo Books, and features a stunning cover by fellow Strange Horizons contributor Duncan Long. His first novel, Vengeance, was

Colin Harvey’s latest book is Winter Song.
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