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Down to the Bone
Justina Robson
Pyr, 429 pages

Down to the Bone
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: Chasing the Dragon
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

Let's give credit where credit is due. Others may be content to churn out endless series of medieval quests of good versus evil, vampires in love, zombies in suits, young wizards, elves and dragons, pirate stories, cyberpunk or faerie folklore. Justina Robson's ambition is to mash together an amalgamation of all these, while throwing in some thoughts about quantum mechanics and alternate universes, rock and roll, self-empowerment and probably a half dozen or so other things I've lost track of over the course of her five book Quantum Gravity series that finally, and thankfully, now concludes with the volume Down to the Bone.

It's been a long strange trip, though I have to admit that having arrived at the end, I don't quite remember, let alone understand, exactly how I ended up here. What started out as a hip and much more interesting reboot of The Bionic Woman (in which our heroine victim can only be resuscitated thanks to biomechanical implants that render her half-human, half-machine with super powers of use to a covert special ops agency) grounded in sf-nal speculation about fractured space-time boundaries of multiverses that include populations of demons, fairies, elves and the newly dead. Our cyborg protagonist, Lila Black, is ostensibly assigned to protect the elf Zal Ahriman, a rock star who has literally crossed-over into the human realm and whose hippieish "let's all live together" songs make him the target of "you've betrayed your race" fanatics.

All of this is conducted firmly tongue-in-cheek, with subsequent volumes adding a ménage-a-trois among Lila and Zal and Teazle, a cutthroat, but honorable-at-heart demon, and a series of transformations in which Lila recovers her physical humanity while retaining her superhuman powers, during which she gets to meet her dead parents and sister, move through time, become a fairy tale character and all the while self-actualize in a way that would make any Oprah Winfrey guest proud. Various key characters seemingly die only to return and continue to crack wise. Even when things appear the most dire, there's something funny to lighten the mood.

By the time we get to Down to the Bone, Lila and Zal are off to find a vacation home away from it all that somehow catapults them into yet another different dimension, and our triumvirate heroes are now out to save the universe from an apocalyptic resurrection of Titans or some such thing that aim to return the various universes to Chaos, i.e., pre-Big Bang status. I don't think it's a spoiler to say that thanks to our sardonic heroes, the universe (as however Robson configures it) continues.

If there's a message beyond providing entertainment, perhaps the point of this all is articulated by Lila's fellow cyborg, Bentley:

  "The more I saw and looked at it from every angle, the more I saw that it was meaningless. I was trying to find the end of the story and I was looking at numbers. I was looking for the happy ending but there's no ending except the terminal numbers and then after them an emptiness. There's no meaning, unless I make one by the path I follow through the numbers, my pattern. That's the sum total of everything. It is truth, but it has no meaning at all. How can that be? I wondered at it and I tried to make that into meaning as well." She laughed harder this time and slapped her knee. "I think you are heading the same way." p. 312  

Somewhere around Book Three (Going Under), plot complications metastasize to the point of imponderability. There's no question that Robson has a vivid and original imagination, but sometimes it might help even the most vivid and original imaginations to be reigned in a bit.

Consider just this one paragraph, concerning Zal riding his dragon mount after rescuing a damsel in distress:

  By morning they were several hours' flight time from Delatra at an uninhabited region of flush boreal forest on an island off the coast of some bit of Serinsy that Zal had maybe read about once in his boyhood and forgotten long since. He only knew about the place because Lila had maps and showed them in rich detail on the surface of his arms as he looked down. Although the island was deserted, it did possess one feature worthy of note, and that was a dry cave, free of bears… p. 365  

Okay, first off, wouldn't a deserted island by definition not have any bears on it? Given that there's no mention of bears in the story before or after this paragraph, why even mention it? And, while it might be adding atmospherics, why do I care whether Zal had once read about this island and forgotten about it; how does this advance the story or add to characterization? Perhaps I'm nitpicking, but frequently the overall narrative goes on like this into tangents that I'm not quite sure are threaded into anything that is actually vital to the story to the point where I'm losing interest and, more importantly, I'm beginning not to care that I'm losing interest.

Which is why I'm sad to report that I found much of Down to the Bone tedious going, particularly as the last book in a series that had started out as a lot of fun. Some books you can't wait to finish because you can't wait to find out what happens; in this case, I just couldn't wait for it to end.

But also to her credit, Robson seems to close the door on the possibility of any future sequels, possibly because she's as exhausted by the exhausting possibilities she's posited as her readers might be. While I may have been disappointed in this last book of the series, the epilogue is a meta-fictional joke that makes you smile and remind you why you felt it was worth sticking through it all to the not-so bitter end.

Copyright © 2011 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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