Book Review 2007 #17: Keeping it Real, Book one of Quantum Gravity

Pyr books has quietly and slowly carved out a reputation and a niche as an up and coming midsized SF book publisher. Lou Anders not only has a blog for the imprint, but a blog of his own.. He also is nominated for a Hugo for Best Publisher this year, and his work comes through in the books he publishes and promotes.
Paragaea was the first Pyr Book I read, and now I’ve read a second: Keeping it Real, Book One of Quantum Gravity, by Justina Robson.


Crossing Faerie with the modern day, urban settings is nothing new. It arguably started with War for the Oaks, by Emma Bull, which brought Faerie into the City of Lakes, Minneapolis. Mercedes Lackey wrote, with a few others, the SERRAted Edge novels. And then there are the Bordertown novels and stories, too. And Laurell K Hamilton’s two worlds have them as well. And there are many others.
Justina Robson has decided to play in this pond and bring a 21st century spin on the concept. In 2015, a supercollider experiment goes disastrously wrong, and the aftermath reveals that Earth is only one of six connected realms. Earth, renamed Otopia in this schema, now sits, just “next door” to Alfheim, an Elven realm, Zoomenon, a realm of elemental, Demonia, a realm of Demons, Thanatopia, an honest-to-god realm of the dead, and Faery. In the six years since, relations have waxed and waned, with commerce, communication and contact spreading across each of them.
Its now 2021, and Lila Black, a half cyborg government special agent, has been assigned undercover to protect Zal, lead singer for the hottest band in Otopia, the No Shows. Zal is a maverick, a black sheep amongst the Elves, at first glance because he, unlike they, really does “rock”.
However, such a maverick is certain to draw all sorts of unwanted attention, and we get a view of 2021 Otopia, and beyond, as Black struggles to keep her charge from being abducted or worse by those who take a dim view of his activities, or seek to use them for their own.
For the most part, I really enjoyed Keeping it Real. The book is unabashedly the first in a series, the book ends with lots of dangling questions to be answered. Hyping and turbocharging Earth into the 21st century, with high tech to counter and contrast against the sorceries of the other realms provides new life for the “Elves meet modern humans” genre. Here, we do get an Elf riding a motorcycle, but we have a special agent with a nuclear reactor to help give her an edge, as well as a lot of other toys. There is a decent leavening of sex and eroticism, but not to the point where it overwhelms the narrative as it seems to do in a certain writer’s oeuvre.
A few things bugged me and drag down the overall rating a bit. The groundwork, explaining how and why we’ve gotten here, could have been written a bit better. It feels clunky and the prose is not as sweet as the rest of the book.
Second, geography is maddeningly vague and inexact and I think that’s a bug, not a feature. Certainly, its clear that the Quantum Bomb event has caused tumult across the world, but having only semi real name for places, frankly, bugged me. I much rather would have had the characters in San Francisco and other real West Coast cities rather than “Bay City”, “Frisco” and mentions of “Old Salt Lake”. Its possible that this is partially due to unfamiliarity on Robson’s part, a check of her bio reveals she lives in England. There is also reference to a football pitch, something that is unlikely to be found in America. A simple substitution of a baseball field would have been a better choice.
On the other hand. there is a lot of potential here, to explore these new worlds and the interactions between these interesting characters. Not just Zal and Lila, but other characters in the band, and others we meet throughout the course of the novel, from elf necromancers to a demoness singer to a dragon that reminded me of the elemental entities of Exalted. Robson knows that the characters that inhabit her worlds have to hold up as well as the world itself, and she does this ably.
They all clearly have pasts that are not completely revealed, and the mystery adds depth to them and their interaction. There is also a plot device that I am going to steal for role playing scenarios, called a “Game”, which Black and Zal fall into. A “Game” is a psychic struggle, with rules, that forms out of wild magic between two participants, often without their notice and, as far as I can tell, only ends when specific conditions are met.
Its a fun and fast paced novel that feels somewhat like Paragaea in that regard. I enjoyed it.
Oh, one last bit. The Elves in Keeping it Real really *hate* lembas bread jokes.