Mike's Reviews > Zoo City

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
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's review
May 22, 12

bookshelves: sci-fi-fantasy, sci-fi-fantasy-club
Read in January, 2012

In January our little sci-fi book club reviewed Zoo City, an "urban fantasy" by a relatively new South African author, Lauren Beukes. The story is set in an alternate version of the South African city of Johannesburg, in which people who have committed a crime are magically attached to an animal familiar, being known then as "animalled". This animal can vary from a sparrow to an alligator, and the link brings both a benefit and a drawback. The drawback is in being visibly branded with your guilt for all to see, and being then forced then to live, as a second class citizen, in the ghetto of Zoo City. This link lasts for the criminals life too, since more than a few dozen feet separation causes painful withdrawal symptoms for them. Plus, the premature death of the animal results in the owner being torn to shreds by some mysterious dark force - possibly the source of the magical powers too. On the plus side is the addition of a physic power. For our heroine, Zizi December, carrying a sloth on her back, this power is the ability to see and follow the links to people's lost things. She exploits this talent for a modest income to help pay off her drug dealer, an income she supplements by writing 419 fraud emails. The story focuses on an unusual assignment for her - find the missing girl from a young pop star duo.
We enjoyed this book, with it's alternate reality fantasy, rich description, and some clever twists of a phrase. The author added in colloquial language from both the South African and pop music cultures. While a glossary would have helped, usually the context gave us enough clues. This addition also showed us how the "animalled" felt, forced to adapt to the subculture of Zoo City. In places we found the description almost too rich, as if the author had gone back in several times and added more layers. This slowed the story at times, but since this was an 'assignment' we all kept going, and were glad of it. Contrariwise, in other places we would have liked more detail, especially relating to the magical abilities. The author, in an interview, said this was deliberate, to let people fill in the details from the myth and magic of their own culture.
The ending seem to come up a little fast, with most of the bad guys getting away relatively free, and Zizi's successes mostly short term – she and Sloth are now sneaking across borders on a quest to find her ex-lover's family. We would liked to have learned more about the animals and the links to them, maybe all will be in a sequel. Or in the movie, as Beukes has just sold the film rights.
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