Zoo City by Lauren Beukes first came to my attention when it won a bunch of awards, notably the Arthur C Clarke in 2011. It caught my attention further because it’s set in South Africa rather than the all-too-common US. The other thing that piqued my interest was Galactic Suburbia discussing the premise, many episodes ago (and actually, I think that happened after I bought the ebook from Angry Robot, but never mind).
Zoo City is set in Johannesburg in a contemporary world with a supernatural twist: people who have committed crimes have their guilt manifest as an animal. The animal is bound to them, a bit like a familiar, particularly as it comes with some minor magical ability, and if it dies, its person dies shortly afterwards. Different countries responded to the animal shift in different ways. In South Africa, the animaled are seen as a lower class, have difficulty finding jobs and live on the fringes of society. Other countries are much less nice to their animaled.
Zinzi has a sloth and her ability if finding lost things by following the tenuous threads that bind people to the things they care about. A job finding a ring dropped down a drain doesn’t end as she hoped and Zinzi finds herself thrust into slightly more dubious work. Things spiral out of control and by the end of the book she has had to fight for her life more than once.
I enjoyed Zinzi as a character. She’s tough because she has to be to survive, which makes her a bit kick-arse but not unrealistically so. I liked that Beukes avoided a particular cliche near the start which a different author might have used to show that Zinzi’s not really a bad person and has a heart of gold deep down. Zinzi’s realist tendencies tend to win out over any feelings of sympathy she might feel towards strangers. Of course this doesn’t make her saint, but then if she were a saint, she wouldn’t have an animal. It was consistent and the exploration of the nature of guilt was aspect I liked.
Zoo City offers a sharp view into the edges of South African society. It is at times quite confronting and there is quite a bit of fast paced action interspersed with Zinzi’s more sedate attempts to work out what’s going on. From the first page I was impressed by Beukes’s tight writing which kept me interested all the way through to the end.
I highly recommend this book to everyone. The fantasy elements aren’t very strong (they only just register above the background level of real-world African mysticism which also features in the novel) and I think it would be enjoyed by a fantasy fans and non-fans alike. The insight into South African life is interesting and refreshing in the plethora of US-set urban fantasy books.
5 / 5 stars