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Chasing the Dragon: Quantum Gravity, Book 4
Justina Robson
Gollancz, 399 pages

Chasing the Dragon
Justina Robson
Justina Robson lives in Leeds in Yorkshire, UK. She began writing as a child in the 70s. Her short fiction has appeared in various magazines in the UK and the USA. Her first novel, Silver Screen, published in 1999, was nominated for the Arthur C Clarke Award and the British Science Fiction Association Best Novel Award. Her second novel, Mappa Mundi, won the Writer's Bursary.

Justina Robson Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Living Next Door to the God of Love
SF Site Review: Keeping It Real
SF Site Review: Living Next Door to the God of Love
SF Site Review: Silver Screen
SF Site Review: Silver Screen
SF Site Review: Natural History
SF Site Review: Natural History
SF Site Review: Mappa Mundi
SF Site Interview: Justina Robson

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

So, when you're four volumes into the Quantum Gravity series (so-called because a Quantum Bomb has ruptured the boundaries of hitherto inseparable human and mythical dimensions), a fantasy adventure that manages to pull off a tongue-in-cheek collage of comic book action heroines, the Six-Million-Dollar Woman, James Bond, sword and sorcery, self-help bromides, archetypical folk tales and just about every epic high fantasy trope, what do you do to top yourself and keep the mix interesting?

Vampires, anyone?

I'm guessing Justina Robson introduced the walking dead into Chasing the Dragons, the latest volume of her continuing bent epic, as a dig to the currently trendy Twilight take in which Bela Legosi is a hot dude in a steady chaste relationship. Here, the dead aren't nearly as sexy. For that matter, this time around neither is our heroine, Lila Black, a secret agent transformed into a cyborg, partly as a way to save her life, but primarily as an experiment in weaponization.

But while we've got vampires, there are no dragons (though the demons from one realm, one of whom is married to Lila, possess dragon-like features), the title notwithstanding, at least not in the Anne McCaffrey sense.

Dragons, of course, are basically huge lizards featured in Tolkien and his derivative admirers. In Oriental mythology, dragons are another term for large snakes, variously associated with wisdom and temptation. In the Biblical account of Genesis, the snake tempts Eve to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. The name of our heroine, Lila, is similar to Lilith, who in the Talmud is the first wife of Adam whom Eve usurps. In Hindu, Lila is a concept of the universe as the playground of the gods; the word literally means "play" and Robson is certainly having playing around a lot here.

That said, the phrase "chasing the dragon" specifically derives from Chinese slang for the inhalation of opium or heroin. According to the Urban Dictionary, it means more than just smoking dope; it specifically refers to the cycle of addiction in which your waking, non-intoxicated moments are devoted solely and obsessively to do whatever you can to recreate the thrill of your first high, the hitch being that even increasing dosages fail to replicate that first experience. Consequently, you can never stop "chasing the dragon." Themes of intoxication, and the unfortunate consequence, run throughout the series, not the least of which is the intoxication of love and its subsequent entanglements and disappointments. In Chasing the Dragon, Robson lays it out in the first paragraph:

  Cold winds blew off the north shore and Lila a burning slap as they snatched foam from the rim of her coffee cup and flung it into her face. She left the scalding black stuff run down her skin without any reaction save a slight narrowing of the eyes…Lila took a final long look at the ocean and let the coffee soak into her skin, The taste taken this way was pure information, not involving tongue and nose or the beautiful crafting of a brain that created flavor out of molecular detection. As raw data she identified coffee, She knew it was bad, but at least her guts didn't feel offended. She briefly considering drinking …coffee that way in the future but, then again, no. Pain was pain and the medicine had to go down the right way.
—p. 5

The pain for Lila is that her half elf, half demon "soul mate" has sacrificed himself at the end of the previous volume, Going Under (though, you won't be surprised to learn that while dead, sort of, is still a continuing character). Thanks to Zal's sacrifice, Lila has returned to "reality" (which in this case means an uncomfortable commingling of elves, faeries, demons and elementals, as well as the aforementioned living dead), but fifty years later than when she left. She is in mourning, then, not just for Zal, but also her now dead sister. There's also this sound in her head, a machine noise generated by her android progeny, beings created based on technologies that evolved from the first successful cyborgization of Lila Black herself. In essence, Lila is haunted by the sounds, and possible rebellion, of her metaphorical children.

If the previous iteration, Going Under suffered from too much pacing, Chasing the Dragon swings in the opposite direction. While things pick up somewhat in the second half, most of the "action" is Lila contemplating her state of misfortune, and the misfortune she's caused others. Even Malachi, Lila's faerie mentor at the agency, is suffering from ennui and uncertainty. While Robson is having fun with the Marvel comic book notion of the flawed superhero -- as Lila remarks in acknowledgement of Spiderman's famous expression, "with great power comes great responsibility" -- she also seems to want to explore the serious psychological complications of human existence. For my taste, though, this existential pondering gets a bit wearisome after awhile. This may be the fault of having the luxury of multiple volumes to tell your story, that you tend to dwell too long where in a shorter form you might be forced towards more precision.

The nonchalance of mashing up various mythologies is also a bit confusing. Manifestations of a fleet from the Void, a seventh dimension unleashed by the Quantum disaster, is a puzzle piece that doesn't seem to quite fit, anymore than does Zal's incarnation as a cloth doll who may or may not be imagining his witchy captors. Robson has expanded her crayon box from just having fun riffing on a fantasy female heroine clichés, but she's not only coloring outside of the lines, but off the paper. Fun for her, probably, but this is one reader who is finding it harder to keep interest. You like the characters, you like the situation, but you get a little frustrated in not entirely getting what the hell is going on, four books into the story line (and, yes, there is a "to be continued" -- the fifth volume is tentatively titled Blood and Bone). Is there a predefined narrative arc? Or is Robson just making it up as she goes along?

I suspect Robson knows exactly what she's doing, even if I'm not sure of what it is. But while I'm looking forward to seeing where this all leads in the next sequel, at the same time I'm hoping that this will be the last one that'll tie everything up once and for all.

Copyright © 2010 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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