Review by Ian Sales
Though Zoo City says on the back, “File Under URBAN FANTASY”, it did, of course, win the Arthur C Clarke Award, which means the jury at least felt it could be read as science fiction. And while Zoo City may display the trappings of urban fantasy, it reads chiefly like a cyberpunk novel, a near-future dystopia told from the point of view of a have-not. Who, in this case, is Zinzi December, a recovering addict and ex-journalist who caused her brother’s death, served her sentence, and was “animalled”. In the world of Zoo City, those who have committed crimes find themselves lumbered with animal familiars as manifestations of their guilt. For Zinzi, it is a sloth. In the world of Zoo City, magic also exists – though it’s not the magic of Dungeons & Dragons or your standard identi-kit heroic fantasy. Mashavi feels more like some sort of extra-sensory talent than it does spell-casting or thaumaturgy (although African styles of magic do make several appearances in the book). Zinzi’s mashavi is finding lost things, and it’s what she now does for a living – because the animalled are the dregs of society, and forced to live in derelict buildings in slum areas of the city. The city in this instance is Johannesburg, and there is a very obvious South African flavour to the novel (Beukes is South African).
After her last client is murdered, Zinzi is forced into accepting a type of job she normally avoids: finding a lost person. The missing person is teenager Songweza Radebe, one half, with her brother S’busiso, of pop twins iJusi . The Spector/Cowley-like figure who controls iJusi, Odi Huron, wants Song back without anyone learning of her disappearance. Zinzi may be reluctant to take on the case, but it soon proves to be even more complicated and darker than she had imagined. The climax of the novel, however, is not Song’s re-appearance but the discovery of a heinous plot to which the disappearance was peripherally linked. While the clues were there, that final twist does come as a bit of a surprise. The plot which drives the story for much of its length ends on a positive note, only to kick off another related, and darker, end-game. This, or its reverse, is a technique I’ve noticed in other crime novels of recent years.
Zoo City reads like noir. It’s a crime novel which happens to be set in an alternate South Africa in which felons have animal familiars and magical talents. Beukes does throw in the odd “found document” which attempts to put a science-fictional gloss on these aspects of her world, but their success is immaterial. The book doesn’t need to be read as sf, and can enjoyed for exactly what it is. Zinzi’s voice dominates the story and, despite Zinzi’s background and some of her more unsavoury activities, Beukes does an excellent job of making her sympathetic. Zoo City is a fast read, but it’s by no means fluffy. I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to (I would normally run a mile, very quickly, from anything labelled “urban fantasy”).
On the front of the paperback edition of Zoo City I bought is a quote from William Gibson: “it feels effortless, utterly accomplished”. He’s right. Zoo City is a polished piece of fiction. For a second novel, it is astonishingly good.