Lila Black is a high-price cyborg special agent. She used to be a regular human, but after a disastrous encounter with someone from a parallel realm, she nearly died. Then she was rebuilt, at huge expense, and is now being sent by her government intelligence agency to be the bodyguard of Zal, an Elfin rockstar who has received some threatening letters. Things get complicated when Zal and Lila become involved in Elfin politics.
Justina Robson’s Keeping It Real has an intriguing premise: a nuclear bomb explosion in 2015 opened up the fabric of the universe and made five parallel worlds accessible to each other. Until then, humans had thought that elves, elementals, and demons were the stuff of fantasy novels, but now they must figure out how to live at peace with all these other species, not to mention the magic they wield.
Unfortunately, that’s about all the good I can say about Keeping It Real. The characters are shallow and unbelievable, especially the protagonist. It’s hard to accept that the government has spent billions of dollars to rescue, rehabilitate, and train Lila to be one of their best superweapons because Lila is pathetic. It’s easy to see why she was nearly killed; she is emotional, weak-willed, unprofessional, and lacks judgment — traits that don’t seem to get better after she’s given machinery to help regulate her internal states. She’s constantly angry, resentful, irritated, nervous, flustered, and always on the verge of a meltdown. While on this assignment, she is less aware of what’s going on around her than she is about how she feels about the male characters, how they feel about her, and which female characters might be jealous of her. She quickly and unthinkingly falls for two different men, letting her “heart” make important decisions about who she should trust and to whom she should give secret information. And she’s a lot more worried about her relationships than her job. Some special agent.
Another problem with Keeping It Real is the “science.” Robson seems to be asking us to take the science seriously, suggesting a rational basis for parallel worlds, discussing the way that Lila’s machinery can control the release of hormones (something it doesn’t seem to do very well, I guess) and split her consciousness so she can act sentry while sleeping, etc. This is something I’d normally enjoy, but Robson just gets stuff wrong — basic stuff like confusing brain EEG patterns while sleeping and waking. This is material that’s been in almost every high school psychology textbook for decades and is easily checked at Wikipedia. Getting it wrong really kills your credibility. Mixed with the “science” is the “wild magic” which is seen, on Lila’s electromagnetic display, as sparkly pink and purple swirls in the ether… don’t get me started.
I might have been able to forgive the aforementioned problems if the plot had entertained me, but it was dull and, frankly, often ridiculous. Where it tries to be funny or profound, it’s just silly or trite. It’s not even suitable for a juvenile audience because of the sex which we know is going to occur because Lila gets bound by an Elfin “Game” based on “sexual forfeit” within a few minutes of meeting Zal the rockstar. She didn’t even know the rules of these common Elfin Games before she took the assignment and I guess her agency didn’t bother to warn her. (Maybe they thought it was as unbelievable as I did.)
It really pained me to finish Keeping It Real. I only kept on so I could review it, though I admit that I skimmed parts by speeding up the playback of the audiobook to three times normal narration speed. The reader, Khristine Hvam, was fine, though her male voices don’t sound masculine and she reads the word “across” as “acrost” which made me cringe. But I have to give her credit for not snickering when she read the words “His body was poetry in her mouth…”