Welcome Jim readers!
Justina Robson’s Keeping It Real is a blend of SF and Fantasy.
When you read the setup you’ll be convinced that this has a shot at the elusive rating of ten out of ten chunks of cheese, where ten chunks of cheese is the worst rating and zero is the best.
A combat cyborg chick, who is also a spy for the NSA, has to be a bodyguard for a dude.
Who’s a half-elf, half-demon.
And a rock star.
After an accident at a supercollider, there are now five other dimensions accessible from Earth. There’s an elf dimension, a demon dimension, etc.
Our Heroine, Lila Black, is a cyborg, at least 50% machine by weight (though not by volume; contents settle during handling). Her cyborg limbs, weapons, on-board tactical AI, etc. were acquired as a result of a horrible event that’s not revealed at first. We’ll eventually get the details as backstory, I assume (I’m writing up some of these notes as I read).
Here we go. I’m not going to indicate quotes with different typeface unless they’re long ones. And here’s the obligatory SPOILER WARNING.
Lila first meets the demon-elf rock star, Zal, Ch 2:
She was dismayed at how unprepared she was. It wasn’t his looks or his rock star status that made her feel sick with nervous tension. [LOL, bullshit.] It was the sense of his otherness… “Hello, Lila,” Zal said. He didn’t have an ordinary elf voice… this one was smoky rather than bell-like. …his long-ash-blond hair and attenuated, pointy ears were exactly on theme. Lila had never seen an elf with dark eyes before. Zal’s were chestnut-brown with darker rings around the iris. She was staring into them like any fool… She turned aside and felt her face heat. The feeling she was experiencing was startling, and nothing like loathing… I will not be attracted to him… she told herself sternly.
Women crave exceptional men. It’s not enough for him to be an elf; he has to be a unique elf, half-demon… and the singer for the most popular band in the world.
Here’s another thing I’ve noticed in chick fiction: Women have a thing about people giving other people “looks” and intimidating them. Usually it’s the female author transparently fantasizing that she’s the one (via an author-insert character) intimidating people with a glance, but there are variations. In Chapter 3 we get several examples of this:
• “What does she like?” asked the girl DJ, giving Lila a competitive and warning-off stare from under the brim of her battered top hat.
• He’d turned away before she could give him her frosty look.
• Jolene rolled her eyes and gave Lila a thanks-for-nothing stare.
• Zal looked at [Luke] and he went quiet.
Key Game concept: Social proof:
• Music corporation exec to Lila on her first day on the bodyguard job: “Hey, don’t go getting ideas about Zal. You know I have to say it. Every girl comes in here and…”
• “Does Jolene have a thing for Zal?” she asked as she held the door for Poppy.
“Oh, big style,” Poppy said. “Who doesn’t?”
Zal’s sister says to Our Heroine, “You listen to me, Metal Molly. I’ve seen a hundred girls looking for the right angle or minute or chance with him…”
Will Our Heroine beat out those hundred other girls for the attentions of the elf demon rock star? Will she?!?!
Another chick thing:
Male of secondary status wants Our Heroine but can’t have her: Ch 3, when she first meets the rest of Zal’s band:
[Luke, the bass player] gave her a grin and a heavy squeeze on her hand. “Is she like, going everywhere with us?” … He winked at her.
At the Ebony Bar, Luke had tried to hit on her…
Later: This thing with Luke is minor, as it never comes up again. But in lots of female-written fiction this is a significant element. (E.g., Eddie Willers’s hopeless crush on Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged.) A woman LOVES the idea of a man wanting her but unable to have her. Men, being less narcissistic, just want tons of chicks to want them so they can fuck them all.
Women and bad boys, a.k.a. “woman wailing for her demon-lover” (that’s Coleridge, you ignoramus):
Dar is another demon, one of the mysterious group that is trying to kill Zal. By coincidence, he’s the person who tortured Lila (this emerges in backstory) and forced her to become a cyborg to survive. Dar burned her so severely that she lost both eyes and all four of her limbs. Later she injures him as he is trying to kill Zal again, and for contrived reasons I forget, she ends up taking him from Earth to his native elf dimension, where he’ll heal faster. Note it’s not Zal she takes, but her and Zal’s assailant, Dar.
Now what she should do to Dar is torture him to death, what with the permanent maiming by fire he inflicted on her, but she doesn’t. The novel has some bullshit reason for it. The real reason is that Justina Robson is female, and we need this psychotic torture fiend around so that our heroine can have sex with him. (Note to nice guys: Keep trying! Women totally love the “nice” thing!)
Putting this out there explicitly would be too much for Robson, of course, so she contrives a BS excuse for the torture. Dar, Ch 13: “I had to continue your interrogation to convince those with me that I was of their party… If I had had to kill you, I would have, because as their leader they must not doubt me.”
Later Lila spreads her legs for him.
Red pill deniers, place that within the confines of thy pipe, and undertake the smoking thereof.
This next part, in light of the recent “women inviting invaders in” in the Western world, is horridly fascinating. In Ch 15, Lila rescues another elf dude (Tath), who is one of a group of enemies who are hunting her and Dar, and brings him to the hideout where she and Dar are hiding from them.
When Dar realizes what she has done, he’s like, “WHAT THE FUCK, WOMAN?!”
A scuffle ensues and Dar kills Tath. But it’s not over. But a pause before continuing.
This thing about inviting hostile men in, is plainly an evolved feature of female psychology. She puts her male companion’s life at risk. And she does so because, in their bones, women know they are usually prizes of war, not victims of war. That is, they aren’t killed, but are raped by the victors in male-on-male conflict of this sort, and so their offspring bear the genes of men who are more powerful.
The instinct to play “Let’s you and him fight” is deep in the female psyche. Time and again we see it play out, and not only with humans. There’s a species of duck, e.g., that my high school Bio teacher told us about, where the females do this. A female will sidle up to a male and get him to follow her. Then she’ll swim over to the vicinity of another male, so that the two males fight. Then she mates with the victor. This female behavior pattern has an ancient evolutionary history; it goes back even to pre-human animals.
(Editorial: It is indeed a reason that most societies, historically, haven’t let women have a large say in important social decision-making. Because, given that power, women will use it to play a social level of “Let’s you and him fight.” Thus either the men of that society wake up and take control back, or they’re invaded by the men of more realistic societies. The native men might win that fight, but if they don’t address the fundamental problem, it will keep happening until they don’t win.(*) In case you haven’t noticed, the entire Western world is living through this right now.
* Many women act as if a safe home base is an imposition that men unfairly inflict on them so they can’t play “Let’s you and him fight.” It’s almost as if they think they have a right to provoke violent conflict.)
Returning to the novel: Insane cunt Lila has deliberately brought back an enemy to their hideout. The bad guy, Tath, is known to Dar. “This necromancer is more dangerous than twenty other agents,” he tells Lila. But Dar gets the drop on him and kills him.
Lila impulsively leans over the dead man’s face and kisses it, and… Tath’s soul enters her. Yeah, his essence plunges deeply into her… Alright, enough. It’s easy to make Beavis-and-Butthead-level puns, but seriously: She invites a dangerous man into her sanctuary, provoking a fight between two men. Then the invader enters her. There’s no other way to put it. Female psychology up the wazoo.
Our heroine is in fact constantly being penetrated in various ways by male elfs/ demons/ whatnot. Here’s a passage, one of several, that doesn’t literally involve intercourse, but…
[Zal] seized hold of her shoulders, pulled her close against him, and kissed her hard on the mouth… the andalune [his magical elf essence] sweetly invaded her like a trickle of warm water, cell by cell… Lila was suffused with Zal.
Moving away from the Red Pill material…
There are some problems with the novel that aren’t related to female sexual psychology. In particular, the plotting. There’s a dictum that if a gun is hanging on the wall in the first act of a play, then it must be fired at some point in the play. This dictum is violated in numerous places in Keeping It Real.
• Zal is shot by an arrow that seems to have some magical spell on it. “No,” he says, “I don’t know what the arrow did. And yes, I do care, but I can’t do anything about it.” We never find out WTF about the arrow or the spell.
• Lila is checking out a bad guy car. When she opens the trunk, a shape-shifting magical entity jumps out and escapes her. Later an expert tells her that it may have interacted with her enough to convey some essential information about her to its bad guy bosses (who presumably planted it in their car as a trap). This is supposed to be threatening, I guess, but it never comes up again!
• Also and worst, Zal is supposed to be the focus of a Great Spell that will change the multiverse. Nothing ever comes of this.
It’s possible that I missed the resolutions of some of these things (and there are more like them). But I don’t think I could have missed all the resolutions if they were actually in the novel.
If Robson plans to revisit this stuff later in the series, that’s a cheat on the reader. The first novel is supposed to be a standalone, so that in reading it, the reader is not committing himself (or in this case, more likely herself) to reading an entire series.
There’s a hilariously abrupt rise in the level of graphicness of the
sex romance stuff toward the end. Remember, this book is marketed as an SF/F novel that happens to have some guy/girl elements and it mostly lives up to that. But near the end (Ch 25) we get
He gasped as she licked up the length of his erection and then took him into her mouth. [Long fellatio paragraph here.] He came, pulsing strongly against her tongue, repeating her name amid syllables that were both elven and demonic. Lila drank him…
I don’t mind a graphic depiction of a good cock-sucking – far from it – but I pity the poor girl who takes what she thought was an SF/F novel to work and accidentally leaves it open to the page with the explicit description of the heroine gulping down a man’s cum, LOL.
By the way, Lila never manages to extract Tath from her body, so he’s within her experiencing all this too. Which is “icky,” as the kids say these days.
A couple of pages later, they’re ready to go again, and Zal fucks Our Heroine and blasts a stream of metaphysical semen up her spine and through the top of her head. Yes, seriously. But don’t worry; his turbocharged demon cum doesn’t hurt her, due to its supernatural nature.
He looked faintly surprised, gazed deeply into her eyes and then a column of white fire rushed up the length of her alloy and bone spine and out the top of her head. Lila was surprised too, and then she was unconscious.
I don’t want to leave the impression that the novel has no virtues. It does, at least for something of its type.
For one thing, there is some humor:
Ch 12: a hostile phoenix, which in this universe is a bird that is completely made of fire, has enveloped them. But they’re temporarily protected by a shielding spell Zal has created. He says, “That’s interesting. I didn’t know they were fire all the way through. I thought they were hollow, like those disappointing chocolate Easter rabbits.”
First, Ch 5:
He gave her a glance that left her in no doubt that he was mentally undressing her. “So, if the [bad guys] are coming, and I only have sixteen hours left to live, how do you feel about charity?”
“Ask me in fifteen hours and fifty-eight minutes,” Lila said sweetly and walked out…
Then, in Ch 12: Our Heroine is trying to get herself and Zal out of a death trap:
Lila bit her lip and thought. If this was down to who he said it was, no way would they want Zal dead. She decided to take the gamble and quickly stripped off her bike jacket.
“Is this my two-minute charity window?” Zal asked, frowning.
…until recently all elves had had a kind of sameyness for Lila, mostly based on ears (pointy, long), hair (lots of it, long), and expression (aloof, controlled, pole-up-the-ass).
Now we come to the awarding of chunks of cheese. On the Neurotoxin cheese scale, zero chunks of estrogen-infused cheese is best and ten is worst.
First of all, I am sorry to say that I will not be able to award a ten out of ten to this novel. I had high hopes after the first couple of chapters, when it became clear that the basic setup was a cyborg spy chick being a bodyguard for a demon-elf rock star. I was anticipating a score as high as nine, maybe even the elusive ten!
But alas, while it does have a fantastically cheesy estrogen-cranked premise, the de rigeur choice between two desirable males (if she fucks both of them, does it actually count as a “choice”?), one of them such an outrageous bad boy that he actually burned all four of her limbs off (this does not stop her from humping him), etc., the novel also does have some virtues which prevent me from awarding a perfect cheese score.
To wit, in no particular order:
1. A good plot twist or two. One is the surprising removal of the presumptive love interest (Zal) from the scene before things really get going with him. Although he does return eventually. Another is the dead necromancer’s spirit entering Our Heroine. That was completely out of the blue.
2. Characterization which, though it isn’t notably good, isn’t notably bad (slipshod, unbelievable, or internally inconsistent) either.
3. Robson has a sense of humor. She doesn’t strain to be funny constantly, but where a natural amusing take on the situation occurs to her, she includes it. Overall, this is done well.
4. Dialogue which is better than the mean for this type of work. Yes, I know, that’s a pretty fucking low bar, but still. I was never sucked out of the story and filled with a desire to throw the book against the wall for atrocious dialogue. Even though there are elves and demons, etc., they don’t stride around talking about “smiting mine enemies down into Hell,” or whatever. One elf, when he encounters something surprising, says, “Well, fuck me sideways.”
Due to these virtues, I at first anticipated that this novel might only manage 5 out of 10 chunks of cheese. But that was before I encountered two huge asteroid strikes of female sexual psychology. First, having sex with a bad boy who tortured you near to death, and to an extent that caused you to be severely and permanently mutilated, is hella-red-pill and is worth 1.5 cheese chunks by itself. Second, so is inviting a hostile invader into what should be a secure sanctuary and then getting penetrated by him.
You could make a case for nine, actually, but I like to hold something in reserve, so…
All in all, eight out of ten chunks of estrogen-infused cheese.
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