Justina Robson

Orion (2009)

Quantum Gravity Book 4

ISBN: 978-0-575-08562-6

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack, March 2010

If you haven’t read any of the earlier books in the Quantum Gravity series, there’s not much point picking this one up. You won’t have a clue what’s going on for much of the novel, and even if you can follow the plot to some extent, you won’t know why anyone is doing anything. That isn’t to say Chasing the Dragon is a bad book; just that it’s totally unsuitable for readers new to the series. Earlier books in the series are Keeping it Real, Selling Out and Going Under.

I do think, too, that the presentation of this novel may well lead some readers to make incorrect assumptions about it. Nowhere on the cover does it say it’s part of a series; you have to look at the title page for that.  Both the blurb and the choice of cover image suggest a novel strongly oriented towards action.  It isn’t; although the story has action, it is in many ways quite an internal novel, more so than its’ predecessors.  Again, that isn’t to say it’s a bad book; just that some readers may think so because it won’t be what they expect.

In earlier novels in the series, a young and innocent Lila Black was drawn into spying after the Quantum Bomb of 2015 led to the worlds of elves, demons, ghosts, and other supposedly mythical things becoming accessible to earth – and Earth to them. It gave a whole new meaning to diplomacy and espionage.  But Lila wasn’t that successful as a spy, and was tortured and nearly killed by the elves. Her human masters rebuilt her into something part robot, part AI, and part… who knows?  It seems magic was involved, because Lila has continued to evolve and even those who made her no longer know how she works.

Not quite knowing what else to do, Lila has continued working for her deceptive masters.  She has also acquired a collection of loyal friends, and two husbands – Teazle, a demon, and Zal, an elf.  As Chasing the Dragon opens, we have jumped around fifty years from when we last saw Lila.  She’s escaped Faery, but fifty years passed while she was there. Many friends and family are dead; others are gone; and the world has been radically changed by the powers Lila ignorantly unleashed on Earth.

Lila allows herself to be drawn back into the shadowy world of intelligence yet again. But this time she’s concerned primarily with her personal missions. First, she must clear Teazle, who’s been sentenced to death and consequently has most of Demonia panting to carry out the sentence and acquire his riches and power. And she must find Zal; he’s theoretically dead, but that doesn’t mean much anymore. She’ll do what her masters want to some extent, but only if it will also help her help her husbands.

I found the tone of Chasing the Dragon rather different to the earlier novels in the series.  Those novels had a lot of action in them, whereas this one was quite internal in many ways.  There’s a lot of thinking about the nature of reality, and appearances, and magic.  I found some of it a little hard to engage with because there was just so much of it; there wasn’t a lot of action or even straightforward explanations to leaven it. In addition, this is in places quite a tricky novel to follow.  There’s not a lot of recapping, so you have to have a good memory for what’s happened in earlier novels.  A number of characters or entities are such that they are best not named; the consequent oblique references can be quite eye-crossingly complicated if you’re not on your toes.

This is in many ways a novel that carries forward the overall story Robson is telling in the series, without really having a lot to offer by itself.  Robson is a strong writer, and she continues to show off some of her strengths: flashes of wry
humor, strong action pieces, and a variety of characters.  However, I didn’t find the setting quite as convincing as in earlier series.  The fifty year jump by itself wasn’t much of a problem, but I didn’t get that strong a sense of the changes.  Lila and other characters tell us something about them, but they didn’t seem strongly embedded in the story and I found much of the setting and background felt shadowy.

The other factor I struggled with a little was the character of Lila herself. Lila is central to the series; not only is she the instigator of much of the action, she’s also the character through whom we see much of the world.  You’d expect Lila to change a lot across the series, especially with what she’s gone through. Robson paints some of those changes in quite a convincing fashion.  However, in this novel Lila seems a little less clear cut. It’s not that she’s less certain of herself (she’s always had her doubts, and that’s part of what makes her realistic); it’s more that she seems to waver between the Lila forged throughout this adventure and a different, less defined Lila. That may well be part of Robson’s point, given the evolution Lila is undergoing; but I found it made Lila a little more difficult to empathise with or care about.  At times it was a little hard to keep reading this novel.

On the whole, I’d recommend this for those who are following the series. Although I didn’t think it was as engaging or interesting as the earlier novels, it pushed the story forward significantly and seemed to bring the series closer to a resolution.  It may well turn out to be a key part of that resolution.  However, it isn’t a novel for those who haven’t read any of the earlier books.  I doubt you’d enjoy it very much, and you’d certainly struggle to follow it.