Robson's Natural History appears, sadly, to be out of print.  Given that it was described by various critics as brilliant, this surprises me; and on reading it, I was even further surprised - Robson's gift for prose and humour (the main selling points of Keeping It Real) is backed up by some great characters and, even more so, a fantastic set of concepts at the centre of the novel.

Natural History has a set of characters who are varied and very interesting.  Two of our three main are Forged: more than just genetically engineered, fully designed biotech hybrids who whilst homo sapiens in some ways are purpose built to do specific jobs, and fully sentient, the Forged are one of the interesting concepts.  The two we focus on - Isol and Corvax - are very different; whilst Isol is named appropriately for her preferred state of isolation and for her deeply political standpoint, Corvax is a character who sees things in much less of a black-and-white way, with much less of a tendency to scheme and much more of a tendency towards self-doubt.  The Unforged - homo sapiens - character, Zephyr is an academic historian, who is an interesting, well-written member of the kind; whilst Robson is perhaps a little unkind about historians (preferring the illusion of the past to the reality of the present), she does present an intelligent, thoughtful and empathetic anthropological viewpoint for Zephyr, which is combined with a nice sense of humour to create another great character.  This sort of style also shows through in all the less central characters, who are still pretty well fleshed out; Natural History is peopled with very much real and immediate characters.

The plot is equally brilliant.  Three strands are interweaved, combined and set into conflict with each other.  A conflict between the Forged and Unforged over independence for the former is brought to a head by the discovery, through first contact with an alien technology, of an apparently dead (although once-inhabited) Earthlike planet.  The first strand is politically well handled and without being obviously paralleled to 20th and 21st century situations, there are mentions of the obvious issues to be brought up, sensitively and well handled.  The Earthlike planet is perhaps the least interesting of the plot-points; whilst Zephyr's inspection of it is fascinating and brilliantly written, it leaves a little to be desired, although it cannot help but do so given events at the end of the novel.  Finally, the contact - the Stuff - is the single most interesting alien thing I have ever read about; it's a brilliant idea, which is slowly revealed over the course of the novel without ever being clear until Robson pulls away the veil on the full intelligence, style and skill of her creation, a brilliant one at that, which not only makes sense but has a perfect kick in the tail at the very close of the novel.

Natural History is, to sum up, well-written, peopled with very human and empathetic, understandable characters, and with some absolutely fascinating aesthetics and plot points; Justina Robson's writing is, perhaps, the only author today who could handle all these things so well and with such a light authorial touch.  Utterly riveting.
Elven heavy metal, augmented secret agents, multiple worlds in collision, treachery, magic and plots within plots... this sounds like my kind of book, right?  This story of Lila Black's assignment as bodyguard to elven rockstar Zal is an amusing, well-written caper, which grabs the reader by the throat and drags them through the story, not letting go until the very end; it's a little heavy on the messaging, but that doesn't detract too much from the story as a whole.

Robson's characters are very real and human people, even those who aren't human.  They've got strengths and weaknesses, and are likeable people - Zal initially comes off as aloof, and Lila has problems as a character at the start, but they both grow on the reader quickly and we care what happens to them both even as it starts to happen; indeed, the danger which strikes is powerful and problematic, and it brings the characters together - in predictable ways, of course.  Other characters, especially Tath and Dar, grow a lot over the course of the book, and it's Robson's use of those secondary figures more than anything which really makes the novel.

The plot's a strong one, with it centring on politics and real-world issues but with fantasy analogues; those analogues aren't simply about environmentalism, racism, isolationism, though they take all of them in, but are also plot-central elements with importance and life of their own.  The internal politics of the novel don't demand to be interpreted in the light of real world issues, but don't shy from the parallels either, and the intrigues and plotting in the novel are beautifully put across and portrayed; indeed, it's one of Robson's strengths that the degree of intrigue, treachery, and plot-within-a-plot doesn't ever really get confusing despite the loyalties of some characters remaining in question until the very end of the novel.

All in all, this is a beautiful, lavish, and brilliant novel; I want to know where this series goes.

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Squeaking of the GrimSqueaker....

February 2012

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