|Zoo City also has one of the best covers I've seen|
Zoo City is an Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning urban-fantasy book by Lauren Beukes. It tells the story of Zinzi December, an ex-journalist and recovering drug addict who became ‘animalled’ after her actions led to her brother’s murder. Now she carries around a sloth, as well as a nasty drug-money debt and a lot of guilt. The day she gained Sloth she also developed a new, magical talent for finding lost things. When she is hired to locate a missing girl, one half of a famous teen pop duo, the case begins to lead her to darker and more dangerous places than she had expected.
Zoo City was not quite what I was expecting, but then, I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting. Perhaps something in which the fantasy or science fictional element was more prominent, not necessarily the focus of the plot, but at least more central. In this, the animals, the magic, the strangeness, are all just there, while Zinzi gets on with things. But you know what? This is a large part of what makes Zoo City so brilliant. Not only are the magical elements never fully explained (which I often prefer anyway), they are not even really important. Except that they are, just not in the ways the reader might think. Animals and the consequences of being animalled are vital to the characters and their world, as well as allowing the author to explore ideas of prejudice, guilt and the stigma attached to rehabilitated criminals, amongst other issues, without ever becoming preachy or heavy-handed. Each element that makes the world strange – the animals, the undertow, the mashavi – is revealed almost as a mundane detail in the background while the missing-person mystery takes centre stage. And then, suddenly, all these little details become vital as the plot takes a darker turn, and the existence of the animalled becomes central to the story after all. This seems like a risky approach, but it is a risk that really pays off.
Lauren Beukes’ writing style feels effortless and natural; it pulled me straight into the story and it was such an easy pleasure to read. Zinzi, our narrator, is fantastic. She is so well realised, with such a strong voice, that she really feels like a living, authentic person. She is surprisingly easy to sympathise with, despite the 419 scams and the shady past, and she is a great example of why a main character does not have to be a shiny hero or grimdark antihero; real people tend to lie somewhere between the two. Zinzi is smart, interesting, confident, sometimes kind, often cynical, and has a great sense of humour. But she’s also flawed. It’s clear that Zinzi means well, but she will often put her own safety and interests ahead of others, and she shrugs off her more questionable behaviour with a kind of lazy approach to morality that makes it all the more appropriate that her animal is a sloth. Another inspired choice. A different author may not have been able to resist giving Zinzi something cool: a wolf, or a snake, (I’d go with panther), or at least something useful, but thankfully Lauren Beukes refused to do anything so obvious. And so Zinzi gets a sloth. Which is great for two reasons, the first I’ve already mentioned, and the second because it gives me an excuse to link to this. Squee!
The animals themselves I find incredibly interesting. What exactly are they? At first they seem to be physical manifestations of guilt; Zinzi appears to have caused the death of her brother unintentionally. She feels she is responsible for his murder because of her own stupid actions, but as far as we can tell, she did not pull the trigger or arrange the crime herself. So animals are perhaps not the embodiment of sin that some characters in the novel believe them to be, but rather a kind of self-inflicted punishment. But then again, are they really a punishment? They can be a comfort, and a companion, and they bestow magical powers called mashavi. They could be a blessing, something sent to help a person through dark and difficult times. However, they do seem to only appear when someone has died violently. Could they actually be the spirits of the dead, or at least a manifestation of the memories of the dead, which their murderers or the guilty parties are forced to carry around with them forever? And what about the Undertow, the swirling mass of existential something that drags people away when their animal dies before them? This would suggest a greater attachment of person to animal, more like the daemon-souls of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. And not being one to miss the opportunity, Lauren Beukes does include a little nod to those books.
The other huge strength of the novel is the setting. The story takes place in Johannesburg in South Africa. Now, it’s always nice to read SF/F set somewhere other than Western Europe or the USA for a change, but this setting is particularly memorable because it is described so vividly and electrically. Sometimes a setting is like another character in a story, and that is definitely the case here. The clubs, the music scene, the streets, the muti sellers, the different kinds of Jo’burg youth, the contrast between rich and poor, the journalists and celebrities, the drug dealers and rehab centres, the sectioned-off area known as ‘Zoo City’ where the animalled live, and the prejudice shown to the animalled, all bring the city to vibrant life. The setting feels gritty, but never gritty for the sake of it, never achieved through random violence or rape as in other stories, but always through character interaction and events or observations that are meaningful to the plot. This is exactly what urban fantasy should be.
There are some parts of the novel that I didn’t think were handled so well. The villains and their dastardly plot were a little too James Bond for me (complete with underground lair and scary beastie). I didn’t really understand the motivations of two of the characters: why they were helping a person one minute and then idly watching him get savagely ripped apart the next. The pacing and structure of the story was a little odd at points, perhaps spending too much time with an underwhelming this-is-what-we-think-the-book-is-about plot before revealing the darker mystery lurking within. I found this second mystery more compelling, and wished more time could have been spent on it before rushing into the high-speed ending. However, I liked how the author brought together so many little events and details from earlier in the story, which I had never imagined would be significant. The ending was good, and I really appreciated how it never resorted to easy answers or easy solutions. Zinzi might come across as a bit of a useless character, as she fails pretty miserably at actually helping anyone, but this is handled so well that it is a point in the novel’s favour rather than the reverse. She is not a passive character; she tries her best, but sometimes life is messy, and sometimes stopping the bad guys isn’t easy.
This is a very enjoyable book – a pleasure to read, a wonderful narrator, and some interesting ideas woven into something that is very unique and memorable.