Zoo City (Lauren Beukes)

2.5 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
In Zoo City, people’s crimes are given corporeal forms as magic power-granting animal companions that the criminal must carry around with them.  The protagonist is one such individual who must solve a mystery with the help of her sloth animal companion that grants her the power to find lost things.  Zoo City placed me in the odd position of really trying to like a book even though I found it somewhat of a chore to get through from start to finish.  The setting is imaginative and the author does a good job providing atmosphere, but I can’t recommend the book based on the fact that the setting and the story don’t really hold together or have much substance.

Greater Detail:
Zinzi December is a disgraced ex-reporter, ex con, and ex-junkie with a sloth that rides around on her back, providing a visual and physical representation of her failings along with the ability to find lost things.  When one of her clients is murdered right before Zinzi returns something lost to her, Zinzi soon finds herself drawn into a web of lies and deceit where only she can solve the mysteries of where to find a missing pop music star and why she went missing in the first place.

The world crafted here is greatly imaginative and has great potential.  Set in a near future Johannesburg, South Africa, the environments of extreme poverty and the minutiae of South African culture already feels alien enough that the inclusion of people with sentient animal familiars who represent their crimes and give them magical powers isn’t quite as absurd as it would be otherwise.  The problems in the setting start fairly early on when it is revealed that all these people with magical powers are confined to a ghetto instead of being sought after for all the miraculous things they can do.  There is some vague mention of people with particular gifts being sought out and well compensated, but the number of ridiculous powers that are apparently not included in this group strained credibility for me a bit.

Kind of the whole point of sci-fi and fantasy as genres is that the author can make whatever assumptions he or she wants true about the world and the reader will accept it as long as everything follows logically off of those assumptions.  Making random things true for the world of your novels isn’t especially difficult, but the reason there are so few great sci-fi and fantasy authors is that reconciling an entire universe to your bizarre imaginings and making it seem realistic is incredibly difficult.  In my opinion, Zoo City fails on this front and the author let down her readership here, but that alone wouldn’t be cause for me to not recommend a book.

The real problem, and the reason I can’t recommend it, is the fact that it doesn’t tell much of a story.  Everything oozes atmosphere and tries very hard to be cool with names of imaginary bands and styles and even a whole side plot involving Nigerian-prince-style e-mail scams, but underneath it all the story really doesn’t go anywhere.  There is a bit of an introduction where we get familiar with the world and the people in it and the main character, Zinzi; then the story just sort of goes off the rails and Zinzi wanders around dealing with stuff that is just sort of peripherally involved with the main plot until we’ve wandered around for 200 pages with nothing much happening and the author abruptly ends it, evil supervillain style.  I like a good story, and no matter how charming or imaginative a setting is, I just can’t in good conscience recommend something that doesn’t tell a decent story.

Comparisons to Other Authors:
I’m not sure if it was intentionally, but there are some marked similarities in the style of this book to Raymond Chandler-style detective novels.  The principle difference in my mind is that all the atmosphere and style in Zoo City isn’t used to tell a more effective story but is instead employed to conceal the fact that there isn’t much of one.  If the hard-boiled style in this book appeals to you, I would very much recommend Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep; it is the first of his Philip Marlowe novels, and should provide much more enjoyment than a rudderless ship of a book like Zoo City.

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Posted in Sci-Fi/Fantasy

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