Lauren Beukes is the Queen of Metaphors. I capitalized and underlined it so it must be true. I'll go into why this is an awesome novel in a second, but first let me treat everyone to one of Beukes' metaphors:
"I haven't drive in three years and the car handles like a shopping trolley on Rohypnol."
I don't highlight much when I read, if at all, but I found myself marking sentence after sentence reading Zoo City. Beukes writes with a rare vividness that would keep me reading regardless of what the hell she's writing about. As it turns out, what she's writing about has the same zest and magnetism as how she's writing it.
Zinzi December is a Zoo. Having committed an unforgivable act she has become animalled, cursed (blessed?) with a Sloth that's an extension of herself. Unfortunately, to everyone who looks at her, Sloth is a scarlet letter marking her a criminal. She exists on the fringes of Johannesburg in the slum known as Zoo City where the criminal underclass and their animal companions live in fear of being separated. A recovering drug addict, she owes money to some bad people. She writes 419 scam e-mails to keep the mob off her back and in her spare time she finds lost items for cash. When a client turns up dead before paying, Zinzi is forced to take on a missing person's case. She's hired by the private and wholly odd-ball music producer Odi Huron to find a teenage pop star. The case is her ticket out of life in the slums, but it might cost her the last shred of human dignity she has left.
Joining a masterful group of first person SFF novels written over the past few years (developing trend?), Zoo City is told entirely within Zinzi's head. To some degree, Beukes' novel is a pastiche. Scenes and plot devices referencing The Golden Compass and the film District 9 are obviously prevalent. There are elements of noir, urban fantasy, psychological thriller, not to mention a bit of not-so-thinly veiled social commentary. Somehow Beukes manages to pull all this together and instead of coming off as imitation of these various styles she instead finds something all her own. Let's call it urban noir magical realism (that's gold baby, copyrighted!).
In telling the story, Beukes takes her readers on a ride through Johannesburg. When I read Dervish House earlier this year I mentioned Istanbul as one of Ian McDonald's characters. I think the same holds true in Zoo City. Johannesburg, its music scene, and its abject class warfare, occupy significant space in the novel. Beukes' flawed protagonist is in many ways reflected in this space - corruptible, decayed, and hopeless. But she is also trying to be something else. In many ways the city acts as her foil - its static nature contrasting Zinzi's desire to be better despite her frequent failures.
The most impressive accomplishment in Zoo City is it managed to make me forget I was reading a novel of speculative fiction. Basing the story in an realistic urban environment certainly aided Beukes' cause, but the depth and rawness of her prose grabbed me with its conviction. The city's music scene in particular was given so much dimension that Angry Robot and South African production house African Dope released a Zoo City Soundtrack to compliment the novel. It's clear that Beukes' world isn't just an author's passing fancy. Zoo City is the representation of a fully realized vision of what Johanassburg would be if our conscience had four legs and fur.
Sadly no novel is perfect, and there a few hiccups here and there. Things get a little occult toward the end, more so than the early parts of the novel might suggest, and the villain's motivation is a tad esoteric. There are also moments when the pace slows down usually as a result of not always brief asides. It's easy to breeze through these moments to get back to the compelling story. I strongly suggest reading them closely, not only for the key world building information provided, but for the fairly hilarious inter-textual Easter eggs scattered throughout.
Nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for the best new writer in Science Fiction and Fantasy for her work in Zoo City, Lauren Beukes has established herself as someone to watch in the coming years. Regardless of the outcome of the vote, Zoo City is a novel that will stand up today, tomorrow, and for decades to come. I'm going to be in San Francisco next weekend and I'm hoping to take a daytrip to Reno and WorldCon. If I do, I fully plan to find my favorite South African writer and give her a big high five. (less)
Written in the first person, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is Yeine Darre's recounting of her life. She is both a participant and an observer in her story which leads to a unique narrative structure where she both describes what's going on, but often takes an aside to put it into context as an omniscient storyteller. Using this methodology, Jemisin presents a style that is uniquely intimate. I often felt like a voyeur lurking on the outskirts of something I shouldn't be seeing. It is beautifully written and brims with emotion.
Throughout the story, Yeine finds herself pitted against two of her cousins in a contest for the Arameri throne. The Arameri, by divine right, hold the leash of Nightlord Nahadoth (god of darkness, chaos, etc.) and his three children who have been imprisoned in human form by the Brightlord Itempas (god of order, light, etc.). So powerful are these captive gods that the Arameri rule the hundred thousand kingdoms without opposition. Yeine, rebels against this world where gods are at her beck and call. She expresses disenfranchisement with the excess and corruption of the Arameri who use Itempas' judgement to extend their dominion.
Jemisin writes a story that is fundamentally ambivalent. There is no morality in her story other than what her character, Yeine, perceives as right. The gods, even the Nightlord (a moniker traditionally reserved for the darkest fiend), exhibit qualities that make them representative of both good and evil. She supports the notion that order does not always mean right and chaos is not always evil instead perspective is the ultimate arbiter of judgement.
She takes it further by taking her gods off the pedestal and imbuing them with humanity. One of the tenets of romanticist fantasy is the unknowing forces of nature (read gods). In Kingdoms the forces of nature are not only knowable, they have faces, and weaknesses of character that are authentic not just constructs of veracity. Yeine interacts with and confronts these forces trying to recognize not only her place in the world, but the justification for their place as well.
Ultimately, I think Jemisin ask her readers to consider their relationship to spirituality and morality. Is our existence significant? Is what we do and how we do it important? Religious or not (I'm not), these questions are the reason people are attracted to the fantasy genre. I've most often heard escapism as the primary driver of fantasy readers - not me. For me, it's because I ask these questions of myself. For someone who doesn't necessarily believe in God, great fantasy makes me try to rationalize my place in things in a way no other genre does. It frees me to come to grips with my own relationship to the fantastic.
Oh, and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is really good.(less)
Sometimes I read a book and I immediately know what I have in front of me. I know it's good, or interesting, or none of those things. With The Dervish House by Ian McDonald I didn't have a clue for two hundred pages. I felt like Paris Hilton after a night out - confused about where I am, at a loss for how I got there, and just hoping to find a ride home with some dignity intact.
Several times in the early going I considered abandoning the book in favor of something more expedient. Unlike most science fiction work out there Dervish House isn't meant to be consumed in 48 hours. I found myself reading small chunks everywhere. A few pages in the bathroom, a sentence or two at stoplights, a couple chapters during an episode of Dora the Explorer, and before I knew it I was so engrossed I finished the last 150 pages in one sitting.
Dervish House follows several characters in the Queen of Cities, Istanbul, that live and work together in the dervish house in Adem Square. There's a boy detective, a retired economist, a treasure hunting wife, a futures trading husband, a nanotechnology start-up family, and a psychopath in the midst of a religious experience. Making the connection between these disparate individuals is the heart of the story moreso than the relatively straight forward terrorist plot that drives the narrative.
If I could ask McDonald one question it would be whether or not Turkey contributed any funds to the novel. I say this tongue in cheek, but Dervish House is a beautiful homage to one of most unique cities on earth.
"The glare of white neon never changes by day or by night. The Grand Bazaar keeps it own time, which is time not marked by the world's clocks or calendars."
Passages like this bring the city to life. If I had to write an essay about McDonald's main character I would write about Istanbul. The city is a character unto itself and the story is a mere backdrop to the heaving nexus between east and west. I finished the novel and immediately asked my wife if we could go to Turkey again. She had been asleep for two hours, but I'm pretty sure the dismissive wave and grunt meant yes.
The novel is slow to develop leading to a frustrating read in the early going. McDonald throws a dozen balls into the air at the outset. Not only is he beginning numerous plot threads that are seemingly unrelated, he is also introducing the reader to a new culture full of its own language affectations and sordid history. Once McDonald finds a comfort level with these things the novel takes off and reads a little like high brow spy fiction.
Nominated for the Hugo Award last week, Dervish House is a worthy addition to that tradition. It is certainly one of the best novels I read in 2010. McDonald asks a lot his readers, but he rewards them with a beautiful novel that I believe will appeal to traditional readers in some ways more than lovers of genre fiction. (less)