Review: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

They said that everyone could be saved, but I've yet to meet anyone who has had their animal magically dematerialised, like Pilgrim's sack of sin. Not without the undertow coming for them.

But the men in the lift didn't carry their animals like burdens, certainly not the giant in front with the burn scars creeping down his neck underneath his t-shirt, and a Mongoose slung across his chest in a customised baby sling. They carried them the way other men carry weapons.

The Mongoose snarled at me, and I may have hesitated for an instant before I stepped into the lift. It didn't go unnoticed. I turned to face the doors as they slid closed, turning my back on the men and their menagerie, although I could see their warped reflections in the shiny aluminium, like a cheap funhouse mirror by way of Hieronymus Bosch.

"Aren't you afraid,” asked the giant in a voice like silt, “to be in here with all us animals?”

“You should be afraid to be in here with me,” I snapped, not bothering to turn around.

- Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, p.62

Zinzi December is a young South African woman working as a 419 scammer to pay off her drug debts. She carries a sloth on her back, the legacy of a different kind of debt, who acts as a familiar, granting her the ability to find lost objects for people. She has a rule; no missing persons, only things. However, when a wealthy music producer offers her a lot of money to track down a young pop star she sees a chance to finally clear her debt. The job puts her in a lot of danger, mixing with junkies, hit men, gangsters, unscrupulous journalists, muti and the spectre of the Undertow, which ultimately comes to claim all “zoos” (people like Zinzi, cursed with an animal to care for).

Zoo City is the second novel by South African writer Lauren Beukes, author of Moxyland, and it won her the Arthur C. Clarke Award. I picked it up because of William Gibson's recommendation on the cover and was not disappointed. You can really see Gibson's influence in the writing style and gritty setting. It also reminded me a little of Tim Powers' contemporary novels.

It makes a refreshing change to read some truly original urban fantasy, with such an intriguing premise. I loved the inserted extra material about the world, such as the documentary about an Afghanistan warlord and his flack jacketed penguin, and the interviews with prisoners with animals.

The characters were all realistic, interesting people, but it was the setting that really made the novel. The Zoo City ghetto within Johannesburg felt like such a fascinating, scary, dangerous and oddly beautiful place. I'd gladly read other stories set there.

Zoo City is an original novel that is part urban fantasy, part gritty crime story. It's a wild ride, recommended for Gibson fans and anyone looking for something a bit different to read.

Published: 2010

Rated: ★★ ★ ★ ☆

#urbanfantasy #fiction #womenofcolour #Africa #crime

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