I started Keeping It Real with some rather mixed expectations. On the one hand, I had picked the book up in Forbidden Planet, saw the blurb and liked it. I mean, from the description, it sounded kind of similar to the setting of the Shadowrun games, but with more of a romantic slant to it, so what’s not to like? On the other hand, my occasional guest poster has since read another of Justina Robson’s books in the meantime, The Glorious Angels, and he absolutely despised it. I think it’s the first time that I’ve ever actually seen him get disgusted that something like it got published, especially by Gollancz, an imprint that he seems to rather like. And having read some of that, I could see why. So what enthusiasm I had for the book initially had waned somewhat, but I still figured that I’d give it a go. What could go wrong?
Keeping It Real follows Lila Black, a secret agent who is assigned to her first mission after being rebuilt into a cyborg body. She is assigned to protect Zal, an elven singer who is causing controversy by being the decadent rock-star that the Elf realm is entirely opposed to. But there is more to this musician than he will admit to her, to the point where the fate of all the other realms may hinge upon his safety. The fact that there is some magically-enhanced sexual tension brewing between the two will only make Lila’s job more difficult.
I really don’t know why I still entertained a shred of hope that Keeping It Real would be in any way good. I want to try and talk about its failures in a structured way, but honestly there’s a lot to cover. Let me just say to start with that my overwhelming impression of the book is that this is the result of telling an alien the basics of writing and certain genres, then telling it to have a go. The elements of a good or at least passable novel are in there, but they only seem to be there in order to push the plot along. The characters for example. I tried so hard to warm to them, to relate to them, but all seemed absolutely futile. Characters will be going along quite happily, sticking to the logical path for their attributed characteristics, only to then go and do something monumentally stupid or weird in order to push the plot along. Then they’ll go right back to how they were, as if this were totally normal behaviour. As a result, this makes both the political intrigue and the sex scenes fall totally flat. For the political intrigue, the fact that I had no idea what anyone actually wanted or why made the latter chapters where Lila is pretending to be controlled by a ghost living in her body tedious and confusing; if I can’t pick out a motive, connect it to a personality and understand why the two work together, then political intrigue turns into needless complexity. Normally I like intrigue. Normally I don’t find myself urging the protagonist to just break the antagonist’s neck because that’s the quickest way out of this interminable situation. And as for the sex scenes. I should not be bored by a sex scene. Even badly written sex scenes have an element of humour to appreciate them with. The absence of personality from an otherwise decently written sex scene is an absolute kiss of death. It makes you pick holes in the entire scenario. The first one is particularly confusing to consider. Lila and her travelling companion are in a rush and being actively pursued, so why would they pick that exact moment for sexy times? For that matter, why with each other considering that said travelling partner is the reason that she is mostly robotic in the first place? I can appreciate putting differences aside when your goals are the same, but this is ridiculous unless it’s hate sex (this isn’t). And then it makes me think of more general questions about Lila having sex in the first place. Why would the government agency that put her back together include a fully functioning vagina alongside an arsenal of weaponry in each limb? That is, quite honestly, the last thing I think someone would include in their design for a walking death machine. Additionally, she’s powered by a mini nuclear reactor, presumably somewhere in her abdomen. Does that not cause concern for any sexual partners, or does it take more exposure for that particular issue to become evident? In a more engaging book, I wouldn’t be thinking about all the downsides of putting your dick next to a nuclear reactor, but here I am.
Additionally, the plot has an unpleasant habit of introducing setting and character details just as they become narratively important, almost like the author forgot until the last minute. Sure, I don’t mind the odd surprise cropping up in a narrative, but it has to be properly set up first. The gun needs to appear in act one before you can fire it in act two, otherwise it just looks like the author is making shit up as they go along. For example, I mentioned above that Lila is possessed at one point. Whilst possessed, she destroys a little flower belonging to the ghost possessing her. Said flower was never mentioned before this point despite the rest of his earthly possessions being detailed, and yet it is monumentally important both in terms of the ghostly possession itself and in a more social context. That’s just poor writing.
Don’t bother. The characters are flat and do hugely stupid things that are out of character for any sane person, purely to move the plot along. The political intrigue is tedious because the motives are difficult to determine or so asinine as to be not worth mentioning. The sex scenes are competently written but devoid of any feeling, meaning you pick holes in the whole premise of the scene and the characters therein. And the plot introduces important elements mere moments before they come into play. It’s so poorly constructed that I marvel that it was ever picked up in the first place. 1/5
Next review: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner.