YA recommendations with lists, pictures, and frequent parentheticals.
Spoiler Rating: High
Hello again, Katie!
At last, your long-awaited letter. I write to you about a sci fi/fantasy thing (I struggled to find a word to describe it; "thing" does well enough, I guess) by Justina Robson: Keeping It Real.
As you're aware, I'm not really a science fiction reader (unless it's young adult sci fi, obviously), and my sci fi preferences lean strongly toward cyborgs and mecha-centric stories. (I blame the latter on watching Aliens as an impressionable young thing, and being smitten with Ripley's Caterpillar Powerloader.)
So imagine my delight when a friend let me borrow Keeping It Real, which features a cyborg woman defending an elf man (who's a rock star, FYI) against politically-motivated assassination attempts.
The Quantum Bomb of 2015 changed everything. The fabric that kept the universe's different dimensions apart was torn and now, six years later, the people of earth exist in uneasy company with the inhabitants of, amongst others, the elfin, elemental, and demonic realms. Magic is real and can be even more dangerous than technology. Elves are exotic, erotic, dangerous, and really bored with the constant Lord of the Rings references. Elementals are a law unto themselves and demons are best left well to themselves.
Special agent Lila Black used to be pretty, but now she's not so sure. Her body is more than half restless carbon and metal alloy machinery, a machine she's barely in control of. It goes into combat mode, enough weapons for a small army springing from within itself, at the merest provocation. As for her heart, well, ever since being drawn into a game by the elfin rockstar Zal (lead singer of The No Shows), who she's been assigned to protect, she's not even sure she can trust that any more either.
Not much plot in its synopsis, right? It's presented as more of a romance than anything else—which I probably should have taken into consideration when I first started reading. Let me tell you why.
But First, More About the Plot
Well, I guess I should explain the plot a tiny bit more. And by that I mean "spoil practically the entire novel."
As the synopsis stated, the human, demon, elf, and faerie realms (among others) are accessible to to each other for the first time, with some pretty interesting results. The elves are especially horrified by this development; they're isolationists, staunchly anti-technology, and prefer peace and calm and communing with nature to, well, anything else.
So when one if their own, the highborn Zal, moves to the human realm and starts eating meat (horror!) and singing high-intensity rock songs (horror!) and generally making a very non-elvish spectacle of himself, some unknown elves—presumably an extremist group that wants to return the elf realm to complete isolation—sends letters to Zal's music producer, threatening to kill Zal.
The humans are ruled by a unified government now, and its National Security Agency is so concerned about the safety of this rock star that they send their single cyborg operative, Lila, on an undercover mission to keep him safe. She's posing as a bodyguard from some random bodyguard agency, and let me tell you, she is really bad at being an undercover operative.
Anyway, Zal is kidnapped by the evil(?) elf queen/whatever, who plans to kill Zal because maybe his blood will repair the "fabric" that used to separate all the various realms, thereby returning the elves to their much-desired isolation. Lila quests through the elvish countryside to rescue Zal, and ultimately the queen fails, because happy endings.
There are some double-crossings and some uncertain loyalties and whatnot, which I approved of. There's some neat elf magic stuff, which I also approved of. There's a deus ex machina dragon at the very end, and you know how I adore dragons (regardless of their deus ex machina status). So why do I only give this book two stars?
Don't Put a Super Collider in Texas
I don't know where in Texas this super collider is supposed to have been, but there's a reason why houses in Texas don't have basements; the ground just isn't suited to them. At all. It's either too rocky to dig, the clay is too unstable, or the water table is too high. Unfortunately, this is the very first sentence in the book, and immediately set my eyes a-narrowing.
It's definitely a minor detail, and as a Texan I am perhaps picky about Texas-related details (as previously noted). However, this is the kind of detail that I would expect an editor to pick up on—and it's only the first in a series of should-have-been-edited errors of the factual, stylistic, and continuity variety.
Don't Skimp on the Logic Aspect of Worldbuilding
I was definitely fascinated by the elves' realm (which I'll describe a bit more later), but was pretty confused about the human one.
First, as a result of the realization that, hey, there are other realms out there, humans apparently (a) adopted a unified government, (b) adopted a single language, and (c) changed the name of the planet from Earth to Otopia. The story takes place in 2021—five years after the explosion that made inter-realm travel possible—which makes it kind of hilarious to read:
Somewhere in the last six years, people forgot that Earth was once Earth. Also during those six years, all that One World Government and One World Language stuff happened. Because if there's one thing humans are good at, it's unifying efficiently and without conflict.
Also odd is this:
So demons and elves have both been intimately aware of the existence of extradimensional regions, and both called this type of reality the Aetherstream—but upon meeting the humans, they both adopted the human phrase for it: Interstitial, or I-space. Even though humans weren't aware of I-space until the demons showed them that it existed. Sigh.
Don't Think Readers Won't Notice the Story's Illogical Premise
A premise is a fairly important aspect of a story, being, you know, what the story is built upon. An illogical premise makes for an illogical story. And boy does this story have some premise problems.
A year (couple of years?) before the story opens, Lila was apparently attached to the human diplomatic corps sent to the elves' realm, where she was to do some spying. Things went, shall we say, badly. She was tortured by elves and returned to the humans in such a condition that her only chance of survival was to undergo a fancy new experimental procedure that made her a cyborg.
Now, I love her cyborgness, and I'll describe that in more detail in a little while. What I don't love is what comes next.
Specifically, that Lila is chosen to be the 24/7 bodyguard of the elf rock star. Whom she'll have to be within arm's reach of, oh, 24/7.
Why is this a problem?
That's right. Lila is terrified of elves as a result of the whole tortured-nigh-unto-death experience. Oh, and deeply prejudiced against them, might I add.
I don't remember if it was explained why Lila is the operative chosen for this mission, though this tidbit does come up during a mild argument between Lila and Zal about whether or not he should do what she tells him to:
So not only is she terrified of elves, she doesn't even have to be on this mission because there are plenty of others who would happily accept it.
Fortunately (and I say that with finger quotes), Lila gets over her terror within approximately a page of meeting Zal. Now, I'm not a psychologist, but it seems a tad bit unlikely that Lila would work through such deep-rooted psychological issues within, say, fifteen minutes. As a reader, I'd want to see this sort of emotional progress take, oh, the majority of the book, at least. But as the synopsis suggests, the romance is more important than any realistic character development or arc, and almost as soon as Lila is over her fear of elves, she's telling herself not to be so attracted to Zal.
Oh, and since I mentioned psychologists: there is one on staff for the National Security Agency, a Dr. Williams. This poor woman quite desperately wants Lila to open up about being tortured and the transition from human to cyborg, but apparently Lila has other ideas.
Let me restate that to accurately express my astonishment:
Lila was tortured to the brink of death while on a mission in the elves' realm (Alfheim), and saved only by being transformed into a cyborg. She's essentially a one-woman army now. She's been physically rehabilitated and sent back out into the field, working as a lone operative on solo missions. The latest of which is to be the personal bodyguard of an elf.
And the Agency never once made her sit down and talk with a psychologist.
Only after Lila has begun her mission to protect Zal does this happen:
You read that correctly. Lila has never told anyone (at the Agency or otherwise) what actually happened to her leading up to/during the torture. She was just patched up (to be flippant about it) and sent back out in the field. Specifically, into a mission working for an elf.
I just. I can't.
What kind of Agency is this? How could thorough psychological rehabilitation not be included in Lila's post-operative treatment?
Katie, I'm despairing over here.
Don't Claim Your Heroine is an Elite Operative When She Clearly Can't Perform Her Job Correctly
Lila is just constantly failing at her job, starting from the moment she meets Zal:
It doesn't get better from there. Lila leaves him alone in crowded public places to go chit-chat in a bathroom, for one. She also is apparently completely unprepared for the mission, judging from how she needs to leave her charge alone to go back to her operations headquarters and stock up on necessary weapons/supplies after being on the job for less than a day. I'll repeat that for emphasis: she leaves her charge alone. To stock up on weapons and supplies. After being on the job for less than a day.
This is their top operative, really?
While stocking up at her operation's headquarters, this little interaction happens:
I'm not sure why she thinks she needs backup for a potential kidnapping situation, but doesn't need backup for potential assassination attempts. (Also, she doesn't actually get backup.)
During the time Lila spends as Zal's bodyguard, her skills are tested three times. She basically fails the first two, and definitely fails the third.
After the first time, surely someone—Lila or her superiors—should have thought, "You know, maybe having a single bodyguard on this mission isn't enough. Maybe two would be better."
Now, I know the book wouldn't have worked quite the same if Lila had backup, or if Lila was good at her job. But if the story requires Lila to (a) be an elite operative with the National Security Agency, and (b) suck at her job, I want to know why she is elite if she sucks as much as she does. This would've been a great time for her fear of elves to make itself known, for example—except, of course, that would accentuate how dumb the premise is. (Also, she's able to shut down her fear responses through the use of her Artificial-Intelligence-self, which is cool. This isn't the explanation for how she got over her fear of elves so quickly, alas.)
It's obviously necessary to have a flawed protagonist, one who makes mistakes and messes things up. No one enjoys reading about the bad ass who is so good at killing that she doesn't so much as break a sweat, because there's no tension or stakes involved when she's obviously going to win every battle.
The problem is when the character's mistakes and limitations should receive a certain type of response (say, from her superiors) but don't. If an operative is struggling with her mission, her superiors would send assistance. They wouldn't allow her to just continue messing up.
So there's another logic flaw for you: her superiors are idiots who clearly don't know how to run their Agency.
As I mentioned, I'm into cyborgs. Pretty seriously. Like, everything about cyborgs fascinates me. I think it started young (watching Star Trek was a family affair when I was growing up, and man those Borg were scary), but didn't really become an obsession until I read Donna Haraway's A Cyborg Manifesto halfway through my master's program. That one article changed the whole course of my master's degree, and has greatly impacted both what I look for in a book and what I write, myself.
But suffice to say that I'm thrilled with Lila's cyborgness. She looks pretty darn neat:
Do I wish it had been more carefully and thoroughly explored? Definitely. But there are some acceptable nods toward the issues inherent in cyborgness, and I appreciated those. Such as, of course, her sense of self:
I've already referenced two of my favorite things about Lila's cyborg self: her Artificial Intelligence (aka AI-self) and Battle Standard mode.
Her AI-self is almost exactly what it sounds like: a secondary "brain" that can control her body, overrule her emotions, and is pretty constantly connected to the National Security Agency's, uh, internal servers, as well as the Internet and stuff. It's not intelligent in the sense that she has conversations with it, though. Her control over it is pretty thorough, and it allows her to do some neat stuff. Surgery, for example:
The only complication with her AI-self so far is that its Battle Standard mode is a tad bit...glitchy. Battle Standard is that super hardcore mode she can turn on when she's in a really bad spot, and...well, you can read it:
Cool, huh? I love both the AI-self and the glitchy Battle Standard, and all the cool things Lila can do with her cyborg body.
Interesting Elf-Related Concepts
Elves have kind of been done to death across all media, but (a) I still love them, and (b) I get quite excited when I come across a new or not-often-seen twist on the traditional elf. Keeping It Real offered some of that!
First is the andalune, which is something like an elf's...well, I'll just show you it in action.
In the elves' realm, however, it extends further than just a short distance from the elf's body, actually becoming one with the energy field of nature. The andalune does a great job of providing some additional explanation for why the elves are so nature-centric; they are literally connected to and dependent on nature at every level of their being. This is neat, particularly when so many elvish societies out there are nature-loving because that's just what elves are.
The other neat thing is the Game—a sort of trap that ensnares an elf and a human (or two elves, or an elf and a demon...you get the idea), created and sprung by free-floating wild magic without either party's consent. The wild magic loves secrets, and seeing them manifest in the real world—so if an elf and a human are at odds, and one or both has desires that they are denying, wild magic is likely to initiate a Game to see that those desires are forced into the open.
Of course, there's a science-fictiony sort of explanation offered:
Needless to say, Lila and Zal almost immediately get sucked into a Game revolving around (it's assumed) Lila's repressed attraction to Zal. Each Game has a Victory condition (in their case, the loser begs the winner to end the Game—and by "end the Game" I do mean "sate the loser's lust") and a Forfeit punishment (here, the one who forfeits will never be able to love anyone but the winner).
Honestly, I think this is super neat. The magic of the Game compels both participants to play, whether they want to or not. Humans are generally acknowledged as the predetermined losers, because elves and demons are such more more adept at them. Games between faeries and powerful human businessmen almost led to an economic collapse on earth, and everyone knows that if you commit a homicide as a result of a Game, you can easily get that charge downgraded to manslaughter.
Yes, the Game is an excuse to up the sexual tension between Lila and Zal, but I love the concept of the Game for its own sake.
A Reversal of Stereotypical Gender Roles
You are of course shocked to hear that I'm keenly interested in gender issues (identity, representation, roles, etc.). Ahem.
Keeping It Real offered a few really neat gender role reversals that had me smiling. Not terribly surprising, I guess, since this story is about a female protecting a male, but it goes beyond that basic premise. After all, Lila fails to adequately protect Zal, at which point the book turns into a Rescue the Prince
First, there are the physical differences. Lila and Zal are the same height (unless Lila artificially alters her height by manipulating her cyborg legs), but where Lila is all metal and muscle, Zal is willowy grace, big eyes, and long hair.
(Not surprising, I guess, because he's an elf, and the stereotypical elf male these days is super androgynous—but nonetheless, I enjoyed it.)
Zal's personality is cocky and playful, which leads him to tease and test the businesslike Lila when they first meet. Her first official duty as his bodyguard is to transport him from his home to his recording studio, and she has her fancy motorcycle all ready to go for just that. Naturally, this becomes an opportunity for him to try to push her buttons:
(Lizzy would've loved all the motorcycle stuff.)
Casual Sex is Okay (Gasp)
Let me preface this by stating that, as you know (but anyone else reading this letter might not), I believe that people should do what they want to do with their own bodies without being, say, slut-shamed for it.
Now, I primarily read YA, where sex is rare (though increasingly less so), and then either rape or performed within the bounds of a committed relationship. As a result, when I do venture into New Adult and straight-up Adult novels, I'm surprised and delighted by (non-shaming) portrayals of casual sex. Casual sex is kind of, you know, a fact of modern life, particularly for us Millennials.
So when Lila engaged in some intimate dealings while on her Rescue the Prince quest, I was pleasantly surprised. Lila and Zal were attracted to each other at that point, but not in love, and Lila was free to do what she liked. And she did! With Zal's unreserved approval! No shaming, no agonizing or remorse. It was what Lila needed at that time, and life moved on.
No, I'm not sharing an excerpt.
I'll give Keeping It Real a solid two stars for effort. Its ending (which I won't spoil, unlike apparently everything else about this book—wow, this is a long letter) was much too deus ex machina, its premise too flimsy, and its character arcs too flat/nonexistent for more than two stars. But it did have its neat points (including one in particular that I didn't mention because I want there to be at least one good surprise in there if you read it yourself). I might consider reading the next in the series, Selling Out, but it'd be low on my to-read list.