In present-day Johannesburg, a new kind of segregation is taking place: regular, law-abiding citizens are kept safe from the criminals, who have all been animalled.
That's the premise of Lauren Beukes' brilliantly conceived Zoo City. When someone commits a heinous crime their guilt manifests in the appearance of an animal companion. The human and animal share a link, and the human also derives a special power, or shavi, from this connection. Ex-journalist, ex'drug addict Zinzi December has had her Sloth for a few years now because of her role in the death of her beloved brother. Zinzi is out of prison now and trying to pay off her substantial debts by writing scripts for e-mail 419 scams, and occasionally acting the part of the rescued Nigerian princess or savvy South African business partner when the poor suckers being scammed out of their life savings show up in Johannesburg. Then Zinzi is hired by a reclusive music mogul to find the missing twin sister in his youthful pop group sensation iJusi, and she finds herself thrust back into her shiny, celebrity- and drug-centred old life while she also explores the criminal underbelly of her new world. It isn''t entirely clear which part is worse, or more dangerous.
Beukes does a good job of presenting us with a world just a little bit different from our own, with vastly different consequences. No one knows for sure why, in the 1990s, animal familiars started seeking out dangerous criminals, who become known as aposymbiots, or 'zoos.' No one knows why these people experience intense pain if physically separated from their animal, or why, if the animal dies before the human, the very shadows come to life and swallow the hapless individual whole: the so-called Undertow. The writing is sharp, witty and evocative.Read more ›
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In the early pages of Zoo City, my high hopes were met - I found witty conversations, a missing person, suspicious emails, and a murder. The rest of the novel I spent wondering about the mysteries until their eventual unraveling.
Delivered is an incredibly original South African remix of urban intrigue, magic and animism. The protagonist, Zinzi December, is a woman with a shady history who earns a living by her ability to find things and by email scams. She gets hired by an odious has-been music magnate to find a missing pop star and becomes embroiled in much more trouble than she bargained for. In Zoo City, much bubbles beneath the surface.
For politicos, the parallel social commentary on the state of things with South Africa and relevant neighbours is an important subtext.
With her most recent offering, Lauren Beukes combines elements from different genres in refreshing ways with a unique voice. She has taken her game smoothly to the next level, without a single respawn. <from the slowhub>
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51 of 53 people found the following review helpful
This is the kind of UF I want to readJan. 13 2011
Lisa (Starmetal Oak Reviews)
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Going into Zoo City, I didn't know what to expect. This is my first novel by Lauren Beukes, but I have heard great things about her other novel, Moxyland. What I found was a very unique and exciting experience in an urban fantasy world, one I haven't enjoyed as much since I read War for the Oaks by Emma Bull.
The story centers around Zinzi December, a young woman living in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her life isn't going so great, having once had a job as a journalist, she is now writing scam emails to pay back a large debt. Things change when she is approached by a music producer who wants to hire her to find a missing recording artist. You see, Zinzi has a special gift: she can find lost things. Not people, she insists, but she cannot turn down the job, which can essentially pay enough to cover her debt and beyond.
Zinzi can find lost things because that's her ability she manifested when she became Animalled. In the world Beukes has created, something called the Zoo Plague emerged, causing anyone who commits criminal acts (we don't know the extent of the requirements) is bonded to an animal for life. This situation is coined Acquired Aposymbiotic Familiarism and no one really know why or how it works. We are shown very little, mostly through separate pieces of information such as web pages or magazine/newspaper articles.
Zinzi was burdened with a Sloth (and that's what she calls it). One of the fascinating aspects of this novel is realizing and imagining what kind of an effect this sort of thing could have on society. Zinzi murdered her brother and she will forever be seen as an Animalled. Society has shunned these people, creating a whole new social class beneath everything else. Some have even used this to gain fame. It completely changes what we know and think about people; just by looking at someone and seeing they possess an Animal, you know they have done wrong at some point in their past.
The story itself is a noir mystery: the search for the missing young singer, Songweza. We follow Zinzi through her telling of the story while she uncovers a larger plot after some twists and turns. At times, you really lose yourself in the investigation and actually forget you're reading a novel about people with Animals and special abilities. Beukes has the ability to create such an original and fascinating world so subtly I forgot there was any other.
What I did yearn for more was more information on the Zoo Plague: why did this happen? How did it happen? I don't know if we will ever know, and I'm fine with that, but I did wish for more. Overall, I recommend this book for anyone looking for a great urban fantasy not quite like anything else.
I received a review copy of this book from the Angry Robot Army program.
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
South Africa on the Attack!Feb. 4 2011
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Mass Market Paperback
When my friend and I asked Lauren Beukes to describe Zoo City, she understandably remarked that the book is rather difficult to explain. Zoo City isn't like a lot of books. On the one hand it is a noir murder mystery with a semi-New Weird slant, but on the other it is a novel about refugees, the music industry, South Africa, guilt, revenge, drugs, prejudice, poverty, and so much more. It is a gloriously complicated novel with equally complicated characters. You might even call it a brilliant example of worldbuilding from outside of the traditional modern fantasy genre.
Zoo City is concerned with Zinzi December, a former convict who, like many others, must bear the mark of her crime in the form of a semi-intelligent animal -- in her case, it's a sloth. But there's also the Undertow -- a mysterious force that some claim is Hell reaching out for the damned souls of aposymbiots like Zinzi. Aposymbiosis, however, isn't all bad. Every aposymbiot is gifted with an ability. Some can create protective charms while others can dampen magical fields. Zinzi can see the threads that connect people to their lost things. And that's how she survives: finding things for people for a modest fee. But when she takes on a job from a music producer to find a missing girl, things get sticky. Her employer isn't who he seems and the person she's trying to find might be running for a good reason. Toss in her debts to a shady organization of email scammers, her complicated relationship with her refugee lover, a murder, and the seedy underbelly of a Johannesburg trying to deal with its new "problem" and you have a complex story about South Africa, its people, and its culture.
Zoo City is immense in its complexity, despite having the allure of a typical genre romp. Trying to describe the novel will always leave out some salient detail, which will prevent one from conveying a true sense of the novel. It is, in part, a noir crime novel, but it is also a foray into South Africa's present. What is surprising about Zoo City is that it breaks the fantasy tradition of disconnection from reality -- what some might call the escapist nature of the genre. Zoo City roots the reader in the now, altering details as necessary to convey a world that has been changed by its supernatural affliction (aposymbiosis); it is a novel with an intimate relationship to South Africa's present (and, by extension, its past). For that reason, I think Zoo City would benefit from multiple readings. The novel's cultural layers are palimpsest-ial in nature, each element bleeding into another so that almost every detail, allusion, and reference becomes integral to the development of the novel's characters and the narrative itself. I consider this to be a good thing because the novel doesn't suffer from feeling disconnected from the world its characters are supposed to occupy (an alternate-history near-today) -- that is that the characters are so firmly rooted in Beukes' South African milieu that they don't read like characters transplanted from elsewhere.
Being so rooted, Zoo City is as much about its world as it is about its characters. The first-person-present narrative style allows for Zinzi's voice to dominate, but that doesn't prevent Beukes from providing useful insight into the various other characters around her main character. While the focus on Zinzi certainly shows a lopsided view of the world, it doesn't fail to show the wider context in which Zinzi has become a part. Zinzi's detective role, in a way, is a duality: she uses it first as a survival mechanism, but then as a way to dig into her own personal reality, discovering the truth about her friends and even herself. It is through this process that the narrative's cultural strands build on top of one another, providing the reader with a progressively deepening view of the characters and their interaction with the world around them. Zinzi's refugee lover (Benoit), for example, is a man with his own mysteries, and it is inevitably through Zinzi's various other doings, some of which she has hidden even from those that know her, that she not only explains the world from which Benoit has come, but also discovers more about who Benoit is/was and how new events in her life will change the dynamics of their relationship and their relationship to the world around them. Throughout all of this, Zinzi's humor, sarcasm, and cynicism pokes through, coloring her character and her vision of the South Africa of Zoo City (by extension, the reader's view is also colored by these interjections).
It is this attention to detail and character that I loved about Zoo City. Instead of focusing undo attention to its plot, the novel finds a balance between both plot and character. Neither is written at the expense of the other, but the characters also seem to steal the show because they are all incredibly flawed, and deal with those flaws in (sometimes annoyingly) human ways. Perfection is an impossibility in Beukes' narrative. Zinzi has many advantages -- her magical ability and her attitude, which she uses to intimidate her "enemies -- but she is also limited, and knows it. Her actions are appropriately influenced by this knowledge; reading her thoughts as she comes to terms with these flaws, particularly in bad situations, is an amusing, if not voyeuristic, experience.
Neither plot or character are perfectly in-sync, however. The ending, I would argue, felt somewhat rushed and without full resolution (by this I don't mean the last pages, which I think were appropriate based on what occurs in the novel); in a sense, I think the ending shies away from the noir crime narrative Zoo City started with and delves into darker themes that might have been better served by stronger foreshadowing in the novel. Zinzi's voice and her character flaws do, to some extent, overwhelm these minor issues, making the ending suspenseful and (slightly) insane, and I suspect that this line of thought is more a nitpick than a sustainable criticism. What I did enjoy about the ending, though, was that it was not pretty; there are no grand heroes to save the day without a scratch here (and, to be honest, there aren't that many grand heroes that save the day to begin with in the novel) -- Beukes is fairly unrepentant about how she treats her characters. The unresolved ending might also make it possible for a sequel, which I think would be a great addition to Beukes' oeuvre, since it might offer further closure to the narrative strands that, like Zinzi's gift, are still pulling for that distant "end."
Overall, though, I think Zoo City has pretty much secured its place in my top novels of 2011, and of the decade. Zoo City is cultural studies in action, and a brilliant piece of work. I've already found myself leaning ever closer to considering South Africa as the second half of what will form my PhD dissertation. Whether it will be influential on SF/F over the next decade is impossible to predict, but I do know that the novel has already begun influencing me, much as District 9 did when I first saw it last year, and much like future projects by Beukes and Blomkamp undoubtedly will. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go read Moxyland.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Zoo City NoirNov. 12 2010
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
I admit I was a bit curious about "Zoo City", though hesitant due to the lack of reviews.
We are initially introduced to Zinzi December. Though at first she seems a bit grubby and stark, we soon learn that there's a lot more to her then first meets the eye.
Zinzi December is really an amazing woman (and let's not forget her Sloth, her 'magical ally' [who would have thought a sloth could be so endearing]) with the ability to find lost things by following their psychic cords. Sure she has some faults, but her heart is in the right place, and she is a quick learner, even if she has lived the fast life and done her share of dark deeds.
As for the story, once it gets going, hang onto you hats, 'cause it's a whirlwind ride. This is a dark, devilishly cunning, piece of writing. Zinzi, with her wits pushed to the edge to survive, is a force to be reckoned with, but as in real life we are not so sure who prevails in the end. Still I hope there will be more books with her. I really like Zinzi December's style.
Thanks to Lauren Beukes for a great story.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Unusual and Intriguing (Kindle Edition Review)May 12 2011
Robin L. McLaughlin
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
I am recommending Zoo City, but not to just anyone.
Zoo City is written in first person present tense. I'm fine with first person, but present tense tends to bug me. Someone who doesn't like either would probably be more irritated than not by the book.
The bit with being bonded to animals is, to be blunt, bizarre and beyond making any sense. Buekes somehow manages to make it work anyway. It's a case of not merely suspending disbelief, but tossing disbelief completely to the wayside. As long as you can do that and just go with it, you won't be bothered by the complete lack of logic. And in fact I enjoyed that aspect despite, and maybe because of, the huge risk the author took with it. Zinzi would seem naked without Sloth.
Because the book is by a South African author it contains a lot of words and slang that an American reader will not understand. (I'm guessing, but some seems to be Afrikaans and some Zulu or something similar.) There's also a lot of Brit slang and the book is full of pop culture references. Many of them an American reader will get, and some they won't. This didn't detract from the reading for me as I really enjoy books that immerse me in a different culture in this manner. It's a way to learn about other parts of the world while being entertained at the same time.
Some parts of the plot are predictable, intentionally so since the author provides enough hints. But even with that, how you get there is often highly unpredictable. Which makes it fun. Buekes is a good writer and very clever with her wordsmithing. I don't think she's as strong in the storytelling department though. While I definitely enjoyed the book, I also felt there was a certain indefinable something lacking that left the story seeming a bit hollow at times. With that said, now that I've discovered her I intend to read her other published book as well.
KINDLE NOTE: I was a bit surprised at the errors contained in the ebook edition of Zoo City because it's published by Angry Robot, a newer imprint that has focused on taking advantage of digital publishing from the get-go. The ebook wasn't a mess by any means, but there were quite a few instances of things like missing hyphens, bad line breaks, missing paragraph indents, and dropped words. It wasn't enough to truly detract from reading, but it was enough to be noticeable.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Surprisingly Pretty DecentOct. 6 2013
Douglas J. Bassett
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
I came to this book with fairly low expectations but ended up enjoying it, more or less. In a future world where (after some-unnamed cataclysm, though it seems to be terroristic in nature) those who sin have animal familiars, low-level magic powers, and the constant threat of encountering damnation ("the Undertow"), our heroine starts searching for a missing Afro-Pop diva and runs into the usual adventures.
Stuff it does right: the world is very well-presented, particularly in it's use of magic, which is never heavy handed. This is basically low-level stuff but it's blended seamlessly into the world, no small trick with such an oddball idea -- this is a world full of people running around with animals, for Pete's sake. Yet you end up buying it, more or less, by the end. Beukes' South African setting may have helped here, as the environmental disparities (a shaman in a Dolce and Gabbino vest who keeps his gross magic elixir in an empty two liter Coke bottle, for instance) come across as charming, somehow fitting. This is a ramshackle world generally, built together from flotsam -- you buy it. It's never over-explained, always a trap for fantasy writers but Beukes leaves a lot of what's going on unstated, which keeps the magic genuinely mysterious and powerful when it does appear. The explanations she does offer are done very cleverly, through other "electronic flotsam" -- a précis of a scientific paper, reviews of a documentary, a music article -- which helps set the world even more. Very clever, this.
I also liked the heroine. I confess to generally not liking female PI books: either the stories retain their edge but the women are laughable Mary Sue's/Wonder Women or the leads are believable but the story itself is a pile of mush. Beukes manages to steer between the Scylla and Charibdes here, Zinzi is a believable woman but the story still has a snap to it. One of the main reasons I think is that Beukes was smart enough not to make her a superheroine: Zinzi is clearly the physical inferior at every action sequence, which helps to up the stakes and feels more "real", honestly. (Things get a bit out of hand at the climax, but even there she mainly outthinks, not out fights, her opponents.) Beukes is also not afraid to show us Zinzi's bad sides, as well: she's good at conning people into talking to her but she's also shown to be a conman more generally, bilking a perfectly nice couple out of their life savings.
Stuff that goes wrong: Actually I think the biggest problems here are editorial, not from Beukes per se. If there was ever a book that needed another pass with the editor, it's ZOO CITY. There are sections here that are charmingly written, even quite well done in a way, but add nothing to the story and probably could've been cut (the whole visit to the "rehab" place, probably there mainly because Beukes went to one and wanted to use her research; the chase sequence in the sewer tunnels, which is well-written but just sort of stuck there). Parts of this seem padded. On the other hand, there are sections that could've used a bit more, the climax in particular seems over-rushed and would've benefitted from a beat or two extra.
There's also a couple of unanswered questions in the story that would've benefitted from some authorial explanation, but I blame Beukes editor for this more than Beukes herself, you have editors to pick up on stuff like this. For instance, I'm not sure, right at the beginning, I understand why Zinzi takes the case, there's a jump from "not on your life" to begrudging acceptance that I just didn't get, and would've benefitted from a paragraph or two of exposition. Similarly -- I'll have to be vague because it's the climax -- we learn the bad guy's motive (and it's very cleverly done), I even buy some of the collateral damage on the way to achieving the motive. We're ultimately told, though, that he's a Very Very Very bad guy, and I'm not sure I really follow that, the reason for all the extra stuff. I think there's a hint why in the story, if you're looking for it, but that too could've been spelled out more.
So a little rough here and there, not perfect, but it does a lot of stuff right. The magic and world is a nice break from most typical fantasy fiction, as well, which also helps. Recommended.