31 March 2007

Keeping It Real review

Keeping It Real by Justina Robson

This is a fun book. Lila Black, our cyborg, spook heroine, is currently undercover as bodyguard for elf rock star Zal, the best thing to hit rock music since electricity but whose fellows elves show their appreciation with death threats. Lila travels not only through Otopia (Earth, the human domain) but transdimensionally to Alfheim (the elf domain), trying to keep Zal's pretty head and vocal cords attached to the rest of him. There is love and a whole lot of lust, racism and revolutionaries, rock and roll, an an elf who sings like Mick Jagger and a bionic soldier who gets back in touch with her humanity. I didn't think I'd like this novel and honestly I still think the prose is inelegant, but the story is an intense joyride that screeches through sexual tension, a political morass, impending doom, and then more sex and doom, and skids to a halt on the other side with a great big whooping "HELL YEAH!"

One of the cool things Justina Robson does in this novel is break down the racism common to fantasies with multiple "races" (which are often in fact species). Lila starts out our story hating elves -- all elves, indiscriminately -- despite her knowledge that racism is bad and she has to deal with elves anyway. There are even very good reasons that Lila began hating elves, which you'll have to read the book to find out.

And then Lila goes to Alfheim, befriends an elf or two, sees how the elf stereotypes are wrong in some places. Where some of the stereotypes hold up, such as that elves hate living in Otopia, she discovers why: in this case, elves are such a part of the Alfheim ecology that being removed from it is somewhat like always being too cold. Robson portrays this breakdown of Lila's prejudices well. A bit preachy on occasion, but the message is strong: overcoming racism, reducing prejudice and discrimination, require as much interaction between the groups in question as possible. Lila willingly travels with and among elves in their homeland; she becomes friends of some and enemies with others, but she learns that elves are not a homogenous, monolithic group. An elf is an individual person, not a representative of some monstrous elf organism. The value of a book that portrays large, hot-button issues as solvable problems is obvious.

On the other hand, I would have liked to see more development of the relationship that Lila and Zal's bizarre, frantic interactions are certainly cementing into. Through the intervention of a great deal of mortal peril and magically intensified sexual duelling/foreplay, they have skipped right over the dinner-and-a-movie stage of relationship-building and gone straight to the post-climactic-explosion sex. (Think The Fifth Element. Think The Italian Job. Think James Bond.)

There are a lot of personal and gender issues they'll have to deal with. Near the beginning of their intense courtship, Zal angrily predicts that "after a few more sessions [of Lila saving his life]...I can feel grateful and emasculated and throw myself into further extremes to prove my virility" (119). And that's more or less what happens by the end, except that Zal doesn't seem to mind so much by then.* HoweveLinkr, Zal's inability to bench-press a sequoia is matched by Lila's emotional IQ of 12. I think they could either make a good go of it or let it blow up in their faces.** I'll be interested to see how that evolves.

Overall, I suggest giving Keeping It Real a read. Especially as you come off of a semester of hellish paper-writing from college, Robson writes a great adventure story for relaxing after finals. You can find it at all the big-name bookstores (B&N, Amazon, Borders), but I suggest giving your money to Overstock (who offer a variety of fair trade goods), Better World Books (who ship green and donate part of your purchase to literacy efforts), Powell's Books, or your local independent bookstore. By and large, it is not more expensive to shop locally or eco-friendly. You can also price-compare across the Internet at BookFinder and Campus1.

*Could be the nookie.
**Stating the forfeit was probably the stupidest thing Robson did in this book. It guarantees a happy/angstful ending even beyond the chicklit-ness and ruins all the suspense and curiosity of figuring out how the Game will end.

No comments: