Review: Zoo City

Way back in 2009, when I started this blog, it was more or less intended to write about what I was reading. I got a little sidetracked with writing about writing. Oops.

Nah, I regret nothing.

I do want to write about this book, though. I just finished Zoo City, by Lauren

I have the Kindle version, so this is the first time I'm seeing the cover. How sad.

Beukes, a book that won the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke award and was nominated for umpty-odd others.

This book was intense.

I heard about it after Lauren Beukes was on Writing Excuses, talking about writing other cultures. Beukes is South African, but she’s white and Zinzi December, her protagonist, is a black young woman and semi-recovering addict living in Johannesburg.

Zoo City is urban fantasy at its best. To sum it up quickly, people who commit a crime or suffer from extreme guilt end up with a magical animal familiar and a magical talent of one sort or another. Zinzi has a sloth and a gift for finding lost things, earned when she was party to her brother’s murder. The “animalled” are a new untouchable caste, living in slums and even hiding their new partners to pass in society.

The book as a whole is a gritty, brutal read, and Zinzi is a tough girl. I asked myself repeatedly in the book, “Do I like this character?”

I’m still not sure.

She makes horrible choices, sure, but she’s working to get rid of her debt to a dealer. She also wants to help the kids she’s hired to find, even after the people who hired her pay her with counterfeit money and try to frame her for another murder. She’s resilient, and that’s something I admire.

I put off reading this book for awhile because there are numerous similarities between it and Shaken: an addict protagonist, a world of magical talents, and written in the first-person, present-tense. The similarities really end there, but I try to avoid reading things that I will inadvertently let contaminate my voice.

Beukes also did things I’ve said I want to do in fiction, but dismissed as potentially unpublishable: she included newspaper copy, academic papers, and other non-character narratives in the book to add perspective.

Damn, she’s good.

I did have a couple of complaints though. First, the book was abstract enough that at times I was bewildered. It never engrossed me because I was never fully immersed in the story. I never cared enough to keep reading past my bedtime.

Two, and this might be a personal complaint, it was so steeped in modern ephemera. Email scams, popular music, slang I couldn’t follow… It may not age well.

It also sparked another thought in me about urban fantasy generally, which I’ll write about tomorrow. Stay tuned, and pick up this book in the mean time.

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