Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Lately it seems I’ve been on a bit of an urban fantasy kick. I’ve read some pretty standard contemporary urban fantasy that simply appeals to me as low-level entertainment, I’ve read some high-end urban fantasy that invokes an old-school feel with a fair bit of the mythic and historical thrown in, and I’ve read some pretty awful urban fantasy, regardless of how you choose to label it. But none was something that felt ‘new’ to me. And while being something ‘new’ is not always a great thing and not always something to strive for, when it’s done right, it stands out. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) does that – it stands out.
 
In Buekes’ re-imagined modern world, there is a plague, colloquially known as the zoo plague. Basically, if you kill someone, you end up with a familiar animal attached to you through some unknown dark magic. The familiar grants you a magical ability, but it also must accompany you at all times, any pain the familiar feels, you feel, and if it dies…well, let’s just say death is the kindest part of what happens to you.
 
Zinzi December is a ‘zoo’ living in the Zoo City ghetto of Johannesburg, South Africa. Her animal is a sloth and her magic is the ability to find lost things. She’s a recovering drug addict working to pay off her drug-fueled debt and she makes ends meet by finding lost things and sending African spam emails. You know what happens next – a case comes along that she doesn’t want, but the pay it too good to pass up. The mystery is to find a lost person, something she tries not to do. She ends up over her head as she travels through the music/club scene of Johannesburg and things dive into the occult.
 
The brilliance of Zoo City is in the setting and what Beukes does with it. Africa is typically underrepresented in SFF, especially urban fantasy, so that alone makes it a breath of fresh air. But the atmosphere Beukes captures makes it great – we see the suffering of an African ghetto, but its hope and family life too. We get a hint of the truly terrible past of refuges. We see behind that spam email and see the person forced into writing it, and the pimp doing the forcing. We see the cost that is inflicted on the person who takes the life of another – some are the thugs we all envision, some regret their past, some are simply lost and scared. Beukes subtly opens our eyes to a world that most never see – intentionally and unintentionally.
 
Now, don’t get worried that Zoo City is some heavy-handed social commentary. It’s not, or it’s not just that and I certainly wouldn’t use the term heavy-handed. At its core is a standard hard-boiled missing person case, with a far from standard ‘private eye’ doing the digging. It’s an introduction to Johannesburg and life in South Africa, it has a truly unique magical ‘plague’ and it is populated by complex characters.
 
The book is relatively short and moves along at a generally fast pace, though I had trouble with some of the uneven pacing towards the middle. These pacing issues, in combination with the a dive deep into a rather confusing occult plot kept me from being as fully engaged in the book as I expected to be, which I find unfortunate.
 
Zoo City was a book that I had high expectations for, and for whatever reason those expectations weren’t entirely met. As I mentioned above, some of it is due to the pacing and some due to the direction it takes toward the end, but from the start there was something holding me back. It’s a good book, and in retrospect, a very good book that I find deserving of accolades it’s been receiving. It’s great to see something like this come along and be appreciated. So, maybe my expectations were just too high, or maybe there is some other level that it just didn’t quite meet, but for me I can’t say that I enjoyed the book much beyond the average. I feel like I should have enjoyed it more, especially in retrospect, but that doesn’t change how I feel. So, I do think that Zoo City is a great book and I think that it’s a brilliant addition to an often stale urban fantasy. But while I can see and appreciate what Beukes does with it, it didn’t entirely work for me, though I can’t put my finger on exactly why. But, I’ll still happily recommend it.

3 comments:

Brett Williams said...

Neth,

Have you read her "Moxyland"? I thought that was solid -- kind of like a 2008 version of "Neuromancer", except not boring. Take plausible extrapolations of current trends/technology, add in some nifty subculture, and put it all to use in an engaging story.

Neth said...

I have not read Moxyland yet, but I keep hearing good things of it. I like your description of Neuromancer as it is similar to how I felt about it when I read it a dozen or so years ago.

Renay said...

I had similar problems with the plot of Zoo City when it veered more heavily into the magic -- it sort of tumbled around until I caught the thread again. I have the same sense of unease with why those parts didn't gel, but also couldn't quite put it into words (maybe if I had been more familiar with the magic being used? It was very cultural specific!). I still ended up liking it a lot, because those bits were secondary to the Zinzi/Sloth, Zinzi/Benoît bits for me.

I will second the Moxyland recommendation, too. The pacing is similar (gradual, fast, breakneck until the end) but still does a great job of putting down layers that all tie together neatly, with great social and political commentary.

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