|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.