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Issue #134 - October/November 2006

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Elves in Black Leather

By Cheryl Morgan

I gave the job of reviewing the new Justina Robson book, Keeping It Real, to Karina for the very simple reason that she had the book in her hands and I was in America and not sure when Iíd see a copy. I also figured that it was her sort of book, and I was right. But this is a Justina Robson book we are talking about, so you could be sure Iíd be reading it sometime. Besides, it has a heroine who wears black leathers and rides a motorbike. My kind of girl. But is it my kind of book? On the way back over to California I finally found time to read it.

Lila was used to the routines of self-checking, tending and managing herself. She was fast and efficient with the machines stored in her smaller case; a toolkit for self-maintenance. The last one was a power unit diagnostic that tested her reactor block. It was running sweetly. The fist-sized tokamak would outlast her, if nobody blew it up.

Lila Black, then, is not your ordinary sort of heroine. But sheís not your ordinary sort of cyborg, or secret agent, either. Although her masters in Earth government have done a decent job on her appearance, she still has more in common with Deathlok the Destroyer than Jamie Sommers. It is all the fault of the elves, really. Humans donít seem to worry too much about cyborgs, at least as long as they donít know they are carrying around a small fusion reactor. But elves are a bunch of technophobic bigots, which is no fun if you have to deal with them.

Did I mention that Keeping It Real is an elf-shagging book? Well there you go, now you know. Iím not really into elf-shagging myself. Demons, for obvious physiological reasons, are rather more interesting, but I fail to see how a pair of pointy ears enhances a guyís sex appeal, and Iíve never been one to fall for the spiritual union chat-up line. Lila shouldnít either. Her bike might dump her if it thought she was that wet. But at least the elf sheís been given the job of bodyguarding is a rock star. Zal has a reasonable sense of humor as well, unlike the rest of the elvesÖ

Zal turned around slowly and said, in a voice so convincing Lila barely recognized it, though she knew it was the start of an old song, "I am the god of hell fire, and I bring youÖ"

Nobody got the joke.

Well they wouldnít, being elves.

But this is the point, really. Your average elf rock star is probably actually a folk singer; possibly one who still hasnít forgiven Bob Dylan for going electric. Zal, on the other hand, has not only heard of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, heís covered their most famous song. It is rather a shame that Robson wrote the book before Lordi won Eurovision, or I suspect Zal might have mentioned them once or twice, instead of merely channeling them by accident.

Are you getting the idea by now? Black leather, motorbikes, elf rock stars who actually know what an electric guitar is for, a small nuclear reactor, and some big guns. And, because this is Justina Robson we are talking about, a heroine with a great deal of self-doubt who is just as likely to let go with the tears as with an Uzi. I donít recall Lila indulging in a chocolate binge when she got depressed, but thatís probably because much of the action takes place in Alfheim and the elves would disapprove of chocolate because it isnít healthy, and they are all vegans to boot and therefore donít allow dairy products.

And if you are starting to think that Robson might just be having a go at environmentalist fundies, well, I suspect you are right.

Because, you know, this is Justina Robson we are talking about here. You canít just turn round and stop being a top class science fiction writer with a degree in philosophy and linguistics. Which is why, in amongst all of the high octane action and inter-species sex, you get occasional paragraphs like this:

"When speech is careless and labels people, instead of simply stating what was done, when speech is used as a weapon, there is nothing we can do but fight. It is not simply the way you talk in Otopia. Speech defines the world. But be aware that in Alfheim these matters take on even greater weight, because our magic is tied to sounds, and no sounds are more powerful than those of words, except music."

So there you have it. Yes, Keeping It Real is a thrill-a-minute adventure yarn full of sex and elves and motorbikes. But it is also a book in which dragons are well versed in quantum mechanics.

There are, apparently, three books in the Quantum Gravity series, of which Keeping It Real is the first. Iím not sure when Gollancz will be publishing the others, but US readers will no doubt be pleased to hear that Lou Anders has bought all three for Pyr. Patience. Good things will come.

Keeping it Real - Justina Robson - Gollancz - trade paperback

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
Masthead Art copyright Steven Stahlberg (left) and Gerhard Hoeberth (right)
Additional artwork by Frank Wu & Sue Mason
Designed by Tony Geer
Copyright of individual articles remains with their authors
Editorial assistants: Anne K.G. Murphy & Kevin Standlee