Quantum Gravity series - Justina Robson
Keeping It Real
The Severed Realms - parallel worlds populated by elves, faeries, demons and things even stranger, now accessible from Earth in the wake of the Quantum Bomb; the spaces in between are filled with hungry, silent ghosts. This is a promising setting, though with a slight hint of overkill (faeries and demons AND ghosts...?). More alarm bells sound as we meet the heroine: half-robot, half-spy Lila Black, whose limbs have been replaced with armour and weaponry following terrible battle injuries. She's young, she's sexy, and she's seriously tooled-up - think Buffy meets Battle Angel Alita via Trinity from The Matrix; the Hot Battle-Chick concept laid on with a trowel (she even rides a motorbike). The romantic interest Zal adds the killing blow - he's a half-elf half-demon rockstar with a fiery tattoo! on his back. All we're missing now is Vin Diesel on a skateboard for the descent into embarrassing self-conscious coolness to be complete.
I'd find all this easier to forgive if it were played more for laughs, but the few touches of humour don't go nearly far enough. This is Robson's first venture into the lighter side of SFF - normally she's a writer of hard science fiction, and this shows through in the writing. Much of the magic and mystery is sucked out by her need to give a science-y explanation for everything; in the same way that Tad Williams's Otherland series was fantasy trying to be sci-fi, this is sci-fi trying to be fantasy, and it's brought too many of its tropes and conventions along with it. The uncomfortable mix made the book curiously hard to engage with - the science looked out of place, and the rest felt sterile and artificial. The characters didn't add much heart to it, either, especially as I rapidly started wishing for them all to die.
You'd think, from her description, that Lila Black would be some kind of sassy, feisty, ultra-competent super-spy, infiltrating with ease and callously blasting her way out when things got tough. Uh-uh. What we have instead is some whiny, angsty 21-year-old who blunders around making rookie mistakes, feeling sorry for herself and mooning over her gorgeous-but-arrogant boyfriend. One of her main storylines involves her new robot body, and how it makes her feel really ugly; while this may be a legitimate concern, it feels more like a self-pitying debutante worrying about her freckles or the couple of pounds she's recently put on. Zal is almost as bad; Robson's gone for a Lestat/Mr Darcy vibe, with the callous smirk concealing a tortured heart of gold - one of the most overused character-clichés there is. And for a famous rock star, he seemed to do an awful lot of covers.
The story, then? In a nutshell, Zal is in danger from elvish fanatics who are either appalled at his vulgarity or determined to use his blood for a spell; Lila has to travel through the realms trying to protect him and also find out about his background; the characters all have to find out about the connections between the realms and the mysterious ghostly events that are going on in between them. If you get that far, the story picks up a bit halfway through the second book, when dark governmental conspiracies start to be unmasked, but it slips again toward the end and I'm not holding my breath for the arrival of book 3. I've got some friends who would forgive anything for tales of sexy elves, and they'd probably love this, but it really wasn't for me.