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This is the first book in the "Quantum Gravity" series. The publication date for the second, "Selling out", has slipped to May 2007 and I don't know how I'm going to stand the wait.

The Quantum Gravity series is set in a future where a disaster in 2015, the "Quantum bomb" has removed the barrier between the earth inhabited by humans like ourselves, formerly known as "Earth" and now as "Otopia" and other realms including those of Elves, Demons, and Faeries. The book starts six years later in 2021. The heroine and central character is Special Agent Lila Black, who works for the human National Security Agency. (It is never made quite clear whether this is the USA's agency by that name or a united human body, but the omission doesn't matter as all the intrigue in the book involves different factions of Elves and other non-humans.)

Lila Black is a brilliant creation: having been severely wounded she has been rebuilt as a cyborg powered by her own miniature nuclear reactor, with rocket jets in her legs, more lethal weaponry than a squadron of main battle tanks, more electronic snooping equipment than a Hawkeye AWACs, and more computing power than IBM. Unsurprisingly the human mind inside this lethal killing machine is worried about to what extent she is still human and self-conscious about what she has become. However, during the course of the book it becomes clear that she is still capable of everything that is best about being human.

The book is a strange mix of hard science fiction and fantasy, but it works surprisingly well. The author manages to include seriously weird events and yet somehow make them seem completely plausible while you are reading about them.

If you really don't like stories which include elves, fairies, demons etc you probably shouldn't read this. If you ignore that advice, don't come back and slag off the book because it contains them. If you accept the premise that a mixing of different worlds has made possible the interaction of magic and high technology, this is internally consistent and good fun.

There is plenty of snappy, cynical humour in the book - anyone under forty reading this book who wants to get one of the funniest jokes should look up the lyrics to the old song with the first line "I am the God of Hell-Fire" before reading it, but that was the only joke which most readers won't easily get.

Anyone who liked Firefly/Serenity, Blakes 7, the novels of Peter Hamilton, or those of Jack Chalker will probably enjoy "Keeping it Real". (It's actually better than Chalker but I mention him because there are a lot of transformations.) Anyone else who likes either science fiction or fantasy is also likely to love this book.

Postscript added 2011: the series currently consists of

1) Keeping it Real
2) Selling Out (Quantum Gravity)
3) Going Under: Quantum Gravity Book Three
4) Chasing the Dragon (Quantum Gravity)
5) Down to the Bone (Quantum Gravity)
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Keeping It Real is the first novel in the Quantum Gravity series by British SF author Justina Robson. Robson is a noted author of hard SF novels such as Silver Screen and Mappa Mundi, but for her latest project she has ventured into Science Fantasy, giving us a world where cyborgs and elves coexist with fairies and advanced AIs.

In 2015 the Quantum Bomb exploded. An accident at an atom-smasher has fractured reality and opened Earth - now called Otopia - to waves of immigration from other dimensions, home to demons, fairies, elves and elementals. It is now 2021 and Lila Black, a special operative condemned to live as a cyborg after losing her limbs on a dangerous mission, has been assigned as bodyguard to Zal, a charismatic elven rock star. Zal's decision to live among humans and do unelven things such as eat meat and exist as a celebrity has made him many enemies among his own people in Alfheim, some of whom have made threats against him. Black has to protect Zal from death or capture whilst uncovering secrets that threaten the relationships between the realms.

Keeping It Real is a book with a lot of excellent ideas. The combination of SF ideas and fantasy tropes works pretty well for the most part and the plot fairly clips along, as it has to in a relatively short (270-page) book. However, there is no denying that the central idea is pretty zany, and the reader is probably expecting a zany, funny book to explore it. This isn't what you get with Keeping It Real. This is a serious book which treats the central daftness of its concept with grim severity. There is some humour in the book - the demon bouncers at a party for example - but overall this is a mostly laughter-free zone.

This wouldn't matter if the characters are likable and interesting. They are not. When she's not dwelling on her horrific injuries, being cut off from her parents and her somewhat tedious 'Game' relationship with Zal, Lila Black is an intriguing character. Unfortunately this is in only about a quarter of the book. The rest of the time her character is engaged in moody introspection about how awful it is to be welded into a metal body with enough firepower to level a small city secreted about your person. Zal is completely unlikeable from the second you meet him to the very last page of the book: a selfish hedonistic egotist with no redeemable features at all. Some of the other characters were much more intriguing - Black being forced to work alongside a rival intelligence agent who was responsible for her injuries is an interesting plotline - but with the two central characters being rather unsympathetic, this made engaging with the novel very hard work.

Luckily, the story kicks into gear towards the end, after the action moves from Otopia to Alfheim. The last 50 pages or so are much faster-paced and you do find yourself drawn more into the narrative. However, for most readers I fear this improvement will come too late in the day to keep them interested.
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Justina Robson's books have been short-listed for the Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, John W. Campbell, and the British Science Fiction Association Awards. In light of all this, a novel such as Keeping it Real isn't something one would normally expect from an author of this caliber. And yet, this is good news indeed. Not only is it Robson's most accessible work, but it will certainly encourage potential readers to check out her more ambitious and "serious" novels.

When the Quantum Bomb exploded in 2015, the fabric of the universe was torn asunder and its different dimensions were revealed. The inhabitants of Earth must now coexist with elves, elementals, demons, faeries, and other such creatures and entities. Special agent Lila Black is now more machine than woman. She's been assigned to protect elfin rock star Zal, lead singer of the No Shows, the most popular band on the planet. Zal has been receiving death threats from elfin fundamentalists, and Lila must become his bodyguard.

The worldbuilding is interesting, and Robson's portrayal of the disparate realms is done with neat imagery. The story revolves around Lila, who shows a lot more depth as the tale progresses. Seeing her "discover" all that her new cyborg body has to offer adds a little something to this book. Zal and Dar stand out from the rest of the supporting cast, but this remains Lila's story.

This is a fun, entertaining and action-packed novel. There's a lot of humor, and the pace is at times fast and furious. I was using Keeping it Real as my "commute" book, and I was always disappointed when I realized that my stop was next. Indeed, I found myself turning those pages, always eager to see what would happen next.

Don't get me wrong. The Quantum Gravity sequence (there will be a sequel released later this year in the UK) isn't Hal Duncan's The Book of All Hours or R. Scott Bakker's The Prince of Nothing. Still, it's a light yet extremely enjoyable reading experience.

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on 20 March 2007
... I bought this book, and am pleased to say I did really enjoy it. Completed it in one sitting.

Yes - it would have benefited from tighter editing; yes, some of the characters may be 'borrowed' from other fantasy novels.

But overall, it was fun. I'm looking forward to finding out what happens next.

One reviewer said that if you like Serenity/Firefly, you'd like this. Well, I do, and I did.
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on 25 August 2006
I came to this book after reading the author's previous novel, Living Next Door to the God of Love, which if not entirely successful was ambitious and innovative. Keeping it Real, unfortunately, is not even of that calibre. The ideas are interesting (I have no objection to combining elements of sf and high fantasy), but the novel appears to have been written very quickly and only lightly edited (if at all) before publication.

The premise is that a quantum bomb created openings between our world (since renamed Otopia, for reasons never explained) and numerous other worlds (ie Alfheim, Faery, Thanatopia). These worlds are little more than cardboard backdrops. Otopia is skimpily described, with few material differences from the world we know. A sojourn in Alfheim feels like a hike through generic woodland, with no telling details to bring it into focus. The closest we come to the fantastical is being told that "everything is more itself there -- like ultra-authentic".

Before the novel opens the protagonist, Lila Black, suffered life-threatening injuries during a diplomatic mission. She was (implausibly) given a choice between dying or being rebuilt -- complete with restored limbs, nuclear core, and various armament -- on the condition that she cut off contact with her family and friends, who are told that she is dead. (Why? The author doesn't say.) The names of her loved ones appear on the page a few times, like tokens of a backstory rather than people for whom the protagonist feels a real sense of loss.

The behaviour of principal characters is inconsistent, often scarcely credible. Lila Black, who is supposed to be a ruthless spy, comes across as a troubled teenager. She flirts clumsily with Zal, the high elf rock star she's been assigned to protect, who himself behaves like a rebellious, surly adolescent. Lila is insecure about her new (half machine) body, but as soon as it becomes convenient for the plot she abruptly loses all self-consciousness.

Lila's relationship with Dar, the elf responsible for torturing her almost to the point of death, is one of the most implausible aspects of the book. She loathes him for about 5 minutes, then her anger dissipates because "it made her feel like a total jerk". After a few half-hearted attempts at hostile dialogue, any pretense of animosity is abandoned. As they are obliged to travel together for several days, their relationship quickly moves to friendship and then sexual attraction.

Secondary characters rarely rise above stereotype -- such as the demon who talks like a black chick from the hood and a psychologist who advises Lila to "take time for yourself".

The novel suffers from numerous basic writing errors: said bookisms, excessive adverbs, inconsistent levels of diction, incorrect punctuation. In a few places the quality of the writing is cringe-inducing ("This is so incredibly -- well, she hated to say it, being a top spy with a mission, but -- it was so cool!").

Some may excuse this book's failings on the grounds that it is intended as light entertainment. But it does not succeed either as entertainment (not being very entertaining) nor as satisfying fiction with memorable characters and settings. For science fiction to be meaningful, we must at a minimum be able to believe in the characters. To paraphrase an eminent science fiction writer, they are the real toads in the imaginary garden.

Writers in this genre have a responsibility to set high standards for themselves -- because there are few critics with high expectations, while the mediocre and the excellent alike are devoured by fans. It's worrisome that this novel is the first in a projected series. It marks a major step-down for a talented writer who seemed previously to aspire to work of greater scope and ambition.
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on 11 September 2006
I'm a newcomer to Justina Robson's work, but no newcomer to either sci-fi or fantasy genre books. However it was with some warm anticipation that I bought this, running on the recommendation that it fused those genres with an enormously welcome lightness of tone, far removed from the dour, pompous scribblings that so often pass for fantasy and sci-fi fiction.

Sadly it didn't live up to my expectations. I was only a few pages in before I realised that the writing itself was pretty thin. Leaving little to excite me about the worlds nor the characters due to a lack of quality descriptive writing or particularly compelling observations on either these fantasy worlds or our own - especially with regards to the characters themselves.

The books major failing is that all the elements are extremely hackneyed to the point of eye-rolling sighs. The Elf-world is little more than a cheap photocopy of a thousand other similar worlds and the central character is so astoundingly shallow and inconsistent in her emotions that she lands outside the "enigmatically troubled" category and squarely in the "soap opera teen" catchment.

There is the rumbling of a far more interesting ongoing plot with some intriguing political machinations to keep an eye out for, which does lift proceedings somewhat, but this is going to need some seriously improved storytelling to give it the wings it deserves.

The suggestion that this book feels massively rushed do hold a lot of water, there were moments when I wasn't sure whether Robson had actually read the previous paragraph let alone the previous chapter, so inconsistent is the characterisation and random the reversals of attitude and emotional attachment.

The few great ideas (including a fascinating "possession" sub-plot) and a genuinely interesting base premise don't add up to much in this first book. I wanted to like it, maybe the next one will see the series live up to it's own potential.
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on 23 February 2007
Well, I really enjoyed it. It's not deep or heavy - it's a 'good read'. My personal favourite sub-genre within Sci-Fi is cyber-punk and I stay well clear of fantasy. But this really nicely brought the two together in a witty and enjoyable way. Of course, bringing two such genres together risks upsetting fans of both and pleasing no-one. But, as far as I am concerned, it worked and I'm looking forward to volume 2. Thanks Justina!
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on 24 February 2007
Just thought i'd do a quick mention for this book - especially seeing some of the negative reviews given!

I bought the book from a high street shop on more of a whim, not knowing the author and not expecting very much - but was pleasantly surprised at the depth of the world she has created - she has made a real effort to make the world(s) described believable and logical - yes there is magic etc but the way she explains it makes sense in a real way not just they cast a spell and it worked which is so often the case!

The characters are well thought out and develop through the book, starting out relatively shallow and you think you know them and not always like them...but as you read further and get involved with the events of whats actually happening, the characters grow and develop, especially Lila who you do have to remember is not long out of recovery on her first mission as a proper agent (and a cyborg as well).

I'm looking forward to the next book to see how things develop, and i really hope Lila's relationships are maintained and not ditched in a James Bond style for a new thrill in each book.

So, yes, in summary - i liked it, and will keep it, and read it many times for enjoyment and inspiration.
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on 2 July 2008
Having had Book II in the series recommended to me, with the caveat of having to read Book I (i.e. this one) first, I was looking forward to settling in to a new series. As you can see from the two star rating, I was disappointed.

The central conceit of the series (connected parallel fantastic worlds) struck me as under explored and clunkily implemented. A traversable connexion between parallel worlds is a fine idea for a sci-fi/fantasy novel to work with. However, as the under pinning of everything else that goes on in this series, this central idea needed greater attention than it was given. Sundered space/time might be expected to connect to either a single alternate world or infinite parallel ones. The limiting of the connected worlds to The Normal One, The Elven One, The Demonic One, The Elemental One, The Faery One and The Dead One (have I got that right?) felt a tad clunky. The history and nature of inter-world connexion is sketchily glossed over, leaving it an all too exposed plot device.

Other aspects of the book, such as the interplay of the sci-fi and fantasy elements or the distinction between the human, cyborg, elf, demon and faery characters, didn't work as well for me as they might have.

I suppose that whilst I enjoy some fantasy novels, I am more of a sci-fi reader and this could account for the problems I had with this book. If you're more of a fantasy reader than I am, you may well enjoy this book more than I did.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 25 November 2006
"Keeping it Real" is the first book in the "Quantum Gravity" series. The publication date for the second, "Selling out", has slipped to May 2007 and I don't know how I'm going to stand the wait.

To my surprise, some people appear to seriously dislike this book. I can see that those who don't like books with magic in, or don't like mixing genres, or who take everything very seriously, might not appreciate the "Quantum Gravity" series. However other people found it great fun, and I was one of them.

The Quantum Gravity series is set in a future where a disaster in 2015, the "Quantum bomb" has removed the barrier between the earth inhabited by humans like ourselves, formerly known as "Earth" and now as "Otopia" and other realms including those of Elves, Demons, and Faeries. The book starts six years later in 2021. The heroine and central character is Special Agent Lila Black, who works for the human National Security Agency. (It is never made quite clear whether this is the USA's agency by that name or a united human body, but the omission doesn't matter as all the intrigue in the book involves different factions of Elves and other non-humans.)

Lila Black is a brilliant creation: having been severely wounded she has been rebuilt as a cyborg powered by her own miniature nuclear reactor, with rocket jets in her legs, more lethal weaponry than a squadron of main battle tanks, more electronic snooping equipment than a Hawkeye AWACs, and more computing power than IBM. Unsurprisingly the human mind inside this lethal killing machine is worried about to what extent she is still human and self-conscious about what she has become. However, during the course of the book it becomes clear that she is still capable of everything that is best about being human.

The book is a strange mix of hard science fiction and fantasy, but it works surprisingly well. The author manages to include seriously weird events and yet somehow make them seem completely plausible while you are reading about them.

If you really don't like stories which include elves, fairies, demons etc you probably shouldn't read this. If you ignore that advice, don't come back and slag off the book because it contains them. If you accept the premise that a mixing of different worlds has made possible the interaction of magic and high technology, this is internally consistent and good fun.

There is plenty of snappy, cynical humour in the book - anyone under forty reading this book who wants to get one of the funniest jokes should look up the lyrics to the old song with the first line "I am the God of Hell-Fire" before reading it, but that was the only joke which most readers won't easily get.

Anyone who liked Firefly/Serenity, Blakes 7, the novels of Peter Hamilton, or those of Jack Chalker will probably enjoy "Keeping it Real". (It's actually better than Chalker but I mention him because there are a lot of transformations.) It doesn't appear to have pleased everyone, but I would expect most people who like sci-fi and fantasy to love this book.
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