Wednesday, December 15, 2010

[Review] "Zoo City" by Lauren Beukes [Part 1]

Title: Zoo City
Author: Lauren Beukes
Genres: Urban Fantasy
Copy: 364
Publisher: Angry Robot Books, September 2010
Standalone/Series: Standalone
Copy: ARC from Angry Robot

Zinzi has a talent for finding lost things.

To save herself, she’s got to find the hardest thing of all: the truth.
Available from: Amazon - US - UK | B&N | BookDepository

Cover Comment: I'm having an illicit affair with Zoo City's UK cover. It's wild, it's more than dangerous. The cover represents the novel. It's black and white for the noir. The title is a collage of the city's landscape and the shavi of the characters. Very dynamic and alive considering how monochromatic the color scheme is.

Review: I can't start this review without nitpicking the worldbuilding, because it is the crux of the story. Without it, there would be no story. Beukes alters only one thing about reality, but it has a global effect. Every human to commit a grave sin becomes attached to animal and develops some sort of supernatural talent. As a result, the 'animalled' are regarded as sort of subhuman species, because their animals distinguish them as grave sinners, which have no place with the innocent and pure normal people. Notice my sarcasm, but I'll dig into the social dynamics in "Zoo City" later.

Most reviewers instantly go to Phillip Pullman, when discussing the concept of the 'shavi' [the animals]. It can't be helped since Beukes drops his name at some point. I don't think there are many touching points between the two worlds. For one, Pullman's daemons are the manifestation of a person's soul, the good and the bad. Beukes 'shavi' represent their master's sins and nothing else, a sort of divine Scarlet Letter that can't be hidden from the world and society.

Again, unlike Pullman, the 'shavi' grant their aposymbiots [another word for animalled] an ability [in Zinzi's case the ability to track lost items]. If these people are sinners, then who would empower them and why? Corrupted people abuse power as Beukes shows in her novel. Is it a divine balancing act? An attempt to diminish the sting of marked? Or is it a prompt to change through using this power for good? Perhaps it's all about survival.

There are no answers, but I also don't think readers need the answer. Rarely in life do we find anything explained to make sense to us. Why should we expect fiction to spoon feed us explanations.

What I do think deserved to be explained a lot earlier is the concept of the Undertow, a process of the utmost importance for all 'animalled'. The Undertow gets mentioned almost in the beginning of "Zoo City" and until page 181 I had to figure out what exactly it was. The following excerpt might spoil the fun for those, who have yet to read the novel, but the Undertow only adds to the mystery of this world:

Current scientific thought tends toward an understanding of the “Undertow” as a quantum manifestation of non-existence, a psychic equivalent of dark matter that indeed serves as a counterpoint to, and bedrock for, the principle of existence.

Zinzi December isn't one of the questioning types. The novel isn't focused on the world, but on survival. Now there Zinzi is proficient. She works with what she has and that's no smooth sailing when she has a Sloth attached to her back. In order to survive, she takes up small jobs finding lost items. She participates in 419 scams and her background isn't a pretty one too. Former druggie. Former journalist [never to have a decent reputation] and a current manipulator.

You get the picture. Zinzi isn't a wholesome person. Yet, I couldn't help but care for her or laugh with her, fear for her and applaud her for every new scheme she devised. Zinzi's the adhesive that holds all the elements together. Anything less of this character, stretched between her conscience and what she is willing to do for her survival, and "Zoo City" would have flopped.

Zinzi is the ultimate Bad Girl that is so Good, an archetype popularized in Urban Fantasy and turned into a cliche as soon as the genre boomed. Where other 'Bad Girls' fail with a wide assortment of weapons, martial arts skills and physical force, Zinzi succeed for she's a McGyver when it comes to manipulating others. Her strength comes from within, stems from her spirit's resilience, from her resistance to become her sins. At the same, Zinzi is as vulnerable as any human being living in these circumstances.

And this whole package is enhanced through Beukes' prose:

Yellow light slicing across my pillow like a knife would be the appropriate simile, but it feels more like a mole digging its way into my skull through my right eyeball. There is a boy in my bed, or at least I think it’s a boy. It’s hard to judge gender by the back of someone’s head. But I have my suspicions, based on the sandy curls and the snippetsof last night that my brain is starting to defrag.

Plot-wise, "Zoo City" is a merry-go-round, if merry-go-rounds had rocket engines strapped for maximum velocity that is. It blasts off as a simple task to find a missing ring, then gets upgraded to a missing person's case and at the last stretch involves a high body count. It's a very intricate whodunit noir with secretive clients, frame-ups and scandals ready to pop out in the open.

From this vague summary above, I take it you've figured out how fast-paced "Zoo City". Written in present tense and in first person point-of-view, the book can be described as extremely caffeinated. The present tense in general doesn't allow the narrator to skip any moment in the narrator, unlike the past tense. At the same time, Zinzi's exclusive first person account guarantee's an uncut director's version of what's happening. The combined effect is an adrenaline saturated story.

While Beukes knows what she's doing with the pacing and still delivers a multi-layered story, I'd say that at certain points I needed a break. A short pause to catch my breath. It never came. From one odd or dangerous situation Zinzi flies into another and I needed to sprint after her.

For some people this may not be an issue, but to me it felt unnatural. One scene that I thought was somehow completely without purpose [though I'm open to other opinions] was the sewer chase. I understand how it adds another aspect to Beukes' story in terms of setting, but it felt somehow random and disconnected from the general plot.

Next Part: Tomorrow I'll focus on Joburg and the 'shavi' as active characters, the themes and African culture [though the last in a very modest way].

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