Enter into Neth Space and you will find thoughts and reviews of books and other media that fit the general definition of speculative fiction. This includes the various genres and sub-genres of fantasy, science fiction, epic fantasy, high fantasy, hard sci-fi, soft sci-fi, new weird, magical realism, cyberpunk, urban fantasy, slipstream, horror, alternative history, SF noir, etc. Thoughts are my own, I'm certainly not a professional, just an avid reader avoiding his day job.
Thursday, December 27, 2012
Review: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
seems I’ve been on a bit of an urban fantasy kick. I’ve read some pretty
standard contemporary urban fantasy that simply appeals to me as low-level
entertainment, I’ve read some high-end urban fantasy that invokes an old-school
feel with a fair bit of the mythic and historical thrown in, and I’ve read some
pretty awful urban fantasy, regardless of how you choose to label it. But none
was something that felt ‘new’ to me. And while being something ‘new’ is not
always a great thing and not always something to strive for, when it’s done
right, it stands out. Zoo City by
Lauren Beukes (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) does that – it stands out.
re-imagined modern world, there is a plague, colloquially known as the zoo
plague. Basically, if you kill someone, you end up with a familiar animal
attached to you through some unknown dark magic. The familiar grants you a
magical ability, but it also must accompany you at all times, any pain the
familiar feels, you feel, and if it dies…well, let’s just say death is the
kindest part of what happens to you.
December is a ‘zoo’ living in the Zoo City ghetto of Johannesburg, South
Africa. Her animal is a sloth and her magic is the ability to find lost things.
She’s a recovering drug addict working to pay off her drug-fueled debt and she
makes ends meet by finding lost things and sending African spam emails. You
know what happens next – a case comes along that she doesn’t want, but the pay
it too good to pass up. The mystery is to find a lost person, something she
tries not to do. She ends up over her head as she travels through the
music/club scene of Johannesburg and things dive into the occult.
brilliance of Zoo City is in the
setting and what Beukes does with it. Africa is typically underrepresented in
SFF, especially urban fantasy, so that alone makes it a breath of fresh air.
But the atmosphere Beukes captures makes it great – we see the suffering of an
African ghetto, but its hope and family life too. We get a hint of the truly
terrible past of refuges. We see behind that spam email and see the person
forced into writing it, and the pimp doing the forcing. We see the cost that is
inflicted on the person who takes the life of another – some are the thugs we
all envision, some regret their past, some are simply lost and scared. Beukes
subtly opens our eyes to a world that most never see – intentionally and
get worried that Zoo City is some
heavy-handed social commentary. It’s not, or it’s not just that and I certainly
wouldn’t use the term heavy-handed. At its core is a standard hard-boiled
missing person case, with a far from standard ‘private eye’ doing the digging.
It’s an introduction to Johannesburg and life in South Africa, it has a truly
unique magical ‘plague’ and it is populated by complex characters.
The book is
relatively short and moves along at a generally fast pace, though I had trouble
with some of the uneven pacing towards the middle. These pacing issues, in
combination with the a dive deep into a rather confusing occult plot kept me from
being as fully engaged in the book as I expected to be, which I find
Zoo City was a book that I had high expectations for, and for whatever
reason those expectations weren’t entirely met. As I mentioned above, some of
it is due to the pacing and some due to the direction it takes toward the end,
but from the start there was something holding me back. It’s a good book, and
in retrospect, a very good book that I find deserving of accolades it’s been
receiving. It’s great to see something like this come along and be appreciated.
So, maybe my expectations were just too high, or maybe there is some other
level that it just didn’t quite meet, but for me I can’t say that I enjoyed the
book much beyond the average. I feel like I should have enjoyed it more,
especially in retrospect, but that doesn’t change how I feel. So, I do think
that Zoo City is a great book and I
think that it’s a brilliant addition to an often stale urban fantasy. But while
I can see and appreciate what Beukes does with it, it didn’t entirely work for
me, though I can’t put my finger on exactly why. But, I’ll still happily