Angry Robot, 2010, 352 pages
Zinzi has a Sloth on her back, a dirty 419 scam habit and a talent for finding lost things. But when a little old lady turns up dead and the cops confiscate her last paycheck, she’s forced to take on her least favourite kind of job – missing persons.
Being hired by reclusive music producer Odi Huron to find a teenybop pop star should be her ticket out of Zoo City, the festering slum where the criminal underclass and their animal companions live in the shadow of hell’s undertow.
Instead, it catapults Zinzi deeper into the maw of a city twisted by crime and magic, where she’ll be forced to confront the dark secrets of former lives – including her own.
Zoo City is urban fantasy that actually earns that label: it's fantasy in the gritty, urban environment of Johannesburg, South Africa. It's set in our world -- almost. Some time in the 1990s, the Zoo Plague, or "Acquired Aposymbiotic Familiarism," manifested worldwide. The result of some unexplained mystic phenomenon, criminals now acquire tangible evidence of their sins at the moment of their crime: animal companions who are permanently bonded to them. Along with their animals, every "Zoo" also gains a unique magical talent, so it's not all bad. In fact, you might think getting a semi-intelligent animal companion and a magic power would be kind of cool -- except that since everyone knows that an animal companion means you've committed some sort of serious crime, and you have a possibly shady magical talent, "Zoos" are persecuted worldwide. In some countries, it's social prejudice (predictably, in the U.S. it acquires a certain amount of gangsta cachet), in others, they're forced into ghettos, and some countries, like China, simply summarily execute anyone who becomes animalled.
(Incidentally, supposedly the f-word -- "familiars" -- is not used in this world because it's un-PC, but calling people "Zoos" flies? I didn't quite buy that one.)
The premise by itself would make Zoo City interesting enough to check out -- somewhat reminiscent of Wild Cards or some other setting where you've got a subclass of randomly "empowered" individuals each with a unique ability -- but this book is set in South Africa, the modern, upscale South Africa of glam clubs and pop superstars and wifi cafes, but also the grim South Africa still haunted by colonialism and Apartheid, afflicted with refugee camps, AIDS, and endemic poverty.
The main character, our first-person narrator, is Zinzi December, a black South African girl who had a privileged upbringing with affluent parents and a career as a freelance journalist, but somewhere along the way she got a nasty drug habit, went in and out of rehab until her parents cut her loose, and then one fatal night, she got her brother killed, acquired a Sloth, and went to prison. Now she's out on parole, living in a Johannesburg ghetto known as "Zoo City," and trying to get out from under her drug debts. Her mashavi (magical talent) is finding lost things. She tries to earn a living by tracking down missing items for a fee ("No missing persons," she insists, so of course we know the plot will revolve around her trying to track down a missing person), but she supplements her income by running 419 scams for the criminal syndicate she owes money to.
Zinzi is a great protagonist. She's a good person but seriously fucked up. She's trying to clean up her life as best she can, considering she's an ex-con with a Sloth, stuck in a gang-infested slum, and has few job prospects. She tries to avoid drugs and alcohol (not always successfully), tries to make smart decisions about who she sleeps with (not always successfully), and feels guilty about ripping off gullible Westerners who believe she's an African princess who needs help getting her father's oil money out of her war-torn country -- but still does it, because how else is she going to pay her bills? She's hard-bitten, cynical, and smart, and her moral compass is bent but not broken.
The plot takes shape when she's hired by a music producer to find one half of a pop star duo, offering too much money for her to say no. Her quest takes her from privileged enclaves of the rich and famous to the sewers beneath Johannesburg; she visits churches and a traditional spiritualist, plays the part of a journalist, calls in favors from old friends, and has to face her own past. Naturally, there are secrets and lies, "animalled" heavies working for the bad guys, and various other twists, leading to a grisly and brutal climax which ties up all the loose ends and lets Zinzi pull her own ass (and that of her boyfriend) out of danger, but was so abrupt and, in places, convenient, that it did not completely hide authorial hand-waving away of complications.
This is a very contemporary fantasy, with snappy dialog and a frenetic pace. One of its flaws is that it's too contemporary. Beukes drops brand names and pop culture references like crazy, and all the mentions of Kias and Androids and iPhones and Facebook and Britney Spears and so on are going to make this book dated in a hurry. Also, I was not always entirely convinced by the voice, which at times seemed a little forced, like the author is trying to sound hip and contemporary just a little outside her age bracket.
Between chapters, Beukes does some of her worldbuilding with documentaries, magazine articles, interviews, academic references, and so on (including a nod to Philip Pullman, because of course the whole "animal companions" thing is going to remind people of The Golden Compass), giving us glimpes of the world outside of South Africa and telling us a little more about the "animalled" phenomenon by means other than exposition within the story. It's clever, but again, a lot of it is going to be dated in a few years.
Lastly, there's the obvious issue of a white woman (Beukes is a white South African) writing a story about a black protagonist and dealing with lots of race and class issues. I can't speak to how authentically Beukes pulls this off; nothing seemed faily to me, but I'm Whitey McWhite Dude myself and all I know about South Africa is what I've read, so I'm no authority. However, I think it's considerably to Beukes's credit that in the endnotes, she lists extensively the sources and the people she interviewed in the course of researching this book, and it certainly looks to me like she did her homework. (Beukes is also a former journalist.) I'd be very interested in seeing reviews of Zoo City from other South Africans.
Verdict: Want an Urban Fantasy novel that isn't embarrassingly YA or hot smexxy undead? Something that's a little bit different and original? With a cover that doesn't consist of butt-crack and tattoos? Zoo City is not a timeless classic of the genre, and it's not perfect, but it's well worth reading, and I enjoyed it enough that I've put Lauren Beukes's other novel, Moxyland, on my TBR list.