Thursday, December 16, 2010

[Review] Zoo City by Lauren Beukes [Part 2]

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 don't particularly like the US cover. Sure the colors are great and the photo manipulation clever, but truth is that it doesn't do anything for me. It lacks the same WOW effect the UK cover has and that is that.

Review: In yesterday's review I briefly touched upon the plot of "Zoo City", since any coverage is spoiler-risky, and expanded on the world-building aspects of the book, Zinzi December as the driving force behind the novel and pacing. In this post I'll talk about Johannesburg as an active protagonist, the inclusion of animals as support cast, themes and bonus tidbits.

Urban Fantasy, as I understand it, is a genre, in which the city acquires an expanded role. From a setting the city becomes a protagonist, who influences the story. The series I have read in the genre use 'urban' as an indicator the story will take place in a modern setting. Beyond that the city remains a prop and nothing else. In "Zoo City" Johannesburg comes to life and shows its different faces such as Jozie and Joburg. It's a city of many names, of many moods, of many faces. Considering how "Zoo City" follows the noir tradition, it's important to establish how Johannesburg can be both generous and merciless:

The urban sprawl thins out as the road deteriorates; kitmodel cluster homes, malls and the fake Italian maestro-work that is the casino give way to B&Bs, stables, ironwork furniture factories and country restaurants. The hawkers selling giant plastic mallets and naïve Tanzanian banana-leaf paintings and the guys handing out flyers advertising new townhouse complexes get increasingly pushy as the spaces between traffic lights grow longer. A grizzled bush mechanic sits under a corrugated-iron leanto, rolling a cigarette and looking out for customers attracted by the badly hand-painted sign propped up outside advertising exhaust fittings.
At the same time, Johannesburg is Zoo City, home to the 'animalled'.

People take their animals out for fresh air or a friendly sniff of each other’s bums. The smell of cooking – mostly food, but also meth – temporarily drowns out the stench of rot, the urine in the stairwells. The crack whores emerge from their dingy apartments to chat and smoke cigarettes on the fire-escape, and catcall the commuters heading to the taxi rank on the street below.
While dangerous, it still offers protection:

On my way home, the dull crackle of automatic gunfire, like microwave popcorn, inspires me and a bunch of other sensible pedestrians to duck into the nearby Palisades shopping arcade for cover.
Another way "Zoo City" becomes alive is through the 'shavi'. I'm skeptical towards animal characters. It's easy for animals to become deux ex machina especially when they display outside the norm for their species behavior. A bird perched on the shoulder, faithful dog and highly amiable squirrel. Animals can fly, are faster than humans and smaller. Thus it's easy for them to save the human protagonists in the 'nick of time'. The 'shavi' are animals that grant their masters supernatural abilities and display their own distinct personalities.

Deus ex machina is written all over and yet you don't see animals saving humans in dumb or predictable ways. Animals have limitations and I think the reason Beukes gave Zinzi a sloth has more to do with sloths being passive and useless. It's why Zinzi's gift is also not of great use in combat. Zinzi has to rely on herself and not on something given to her. It's a similar situation with other characters and their 'shavi'. Beukes features a mongoose, a poodle, a handicap vulture, a scorpion, a bunny, a butterfly. Animals without fighting capabilities.

"Zoo City" isn't only a murder mystery, it's a book about Africa. You can sense that in the heavy use of African slang. On one hand, the slang creates authenticity and adds a pop to the story, separates it from the rest and gives "Zoo City" authenticity. Then again, I could barely grasp any of the African words, only what the contrast hinted. Thankfully, Beukes knew where to restrict herself so that the novel remains accessible to outsiders. Beukes discusses muti, the African traditional medicine as well as the ritualistic murders practice.

As a book about Africa, "Zoo City" handles themes typical for Africa. To me the social dynamics between the normals and the animalled recalls the apartheid system, which was the status quo until not that long ago. However, here the segregation is based not on race, but on whether the individual is an aposymbiot or not. The whole novel deals with Zoo City's forceful isolation from the rest of Johannesburg. There is obvious discrimination. Zoos are denied job positions, services and even entrance to certain establishments. It's as if there is a city within the city, which the majority pretends not to exist.

A truly spectacular novel.

Verdict: 'Zoo City' the novel for the adrenaline junkie. Gripping from page one, it rockets through a rollercoaster plot. Beukes never stops the action and delivers a page-turner seemingly without a fault. Substance, setting, characterization. It's all there. You can't go wrong with this one.

Reviews I've seen: [if there are reviews I have failed to mention link me up in the comments]

Speculative Book Review

Red Book Review
Dark Fiction Review


Anonymous said...

I loved Zoo City. The characters were wonderful, the animals were "just animals", the adrenaline was through the roof, I really liked it.

I'm with you, the US coverart does nothing for me. I don't understand why they didn't use the UK art here!!!

Harry Markov said...

I think that US market has a thing for faces. They are attracted by the characters, while in the UK concept is looked more. It's subjective.

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