A book centering on a cyborg secret agent spying for a human government on elves, demons, faeries, and a panoply of magical creatures sounds like a recipe for tired cliché. And to some degree it is. However, Keeping it Real (2006), the first book in Justina Robson’s “Quantum Gravity” series, is unusual for the genre because it’s written by a woman about a female protagonist and Robson combines an intimate knowledge of her literary precursors with a seemingly limitless imagination and a flair for detailed, colorful description to create a novel that will satisfy most genre readers, as well as many who aren’t.
Set in 2015, six years after an accident that opened the space-time continuum to allow somewhat restricted travel between realms previously separated, the universe Robson creates is gratifyingly complex metaphysically, politically, and socially. But what really makes this book is that it (perhaps characteristically for Robson—though I don’t know because this is the first book of hers I’ve read) combines non-stop action, motorcycles, and a slightly kinky sexuality with flirting, fashion, complex relationship dynamics, and magic. The synthesis is unique and, at times, stunning.
Comparisons for such a concoction are difficult. In terms of sheer inventiveness and glorious detail, the work of China Miéville is somewhat like it, but Robson’s is lighter of heart and more tied (just barely) to our current reality. Robson’s pacing is fast, to the point of fatigue: just when you’re relaxing a bit she throws a deadly new threat at the heroine, another phantasmagorical description, another twisting plot line. The pages turn quickly and you have to force yourself to slow down for what is really very fine prose. The end was seemingly random, as if she just decided it was time to stop in the middle of the story. On the other hand, there are (to date) four books in the series, so there’s plenty more to enjoy and, perhaps, plenty of time to understand her reasons.