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In October 2012, Humble Bundle did something new and different: instead of releasing a batch of independently-developed video games, they released a batch of promising new science fiction and fantasy e-books. Since I’d just purchased a tablet, I figured it would be a cheap and easy way to pick up some e-books to fill it up with while supporting both authors and charity. Besides, leading with Cory Doctorow’s Pirate Cinema and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, two releases high on my contemporary SF buy-list, was incentive enough.

One of those original eight Bundle e-books was Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City, which made enough waves that even I have heard its title bandied about. Beukes is a South African writer, which also serves as the setting for her novels. And Zoo City won a Clarke award and The Kitschies Red Tentacle (whatever that is) and was shortlisted for the BSFA Award. That’s really all I knew before I felt pressured by the novel’s summary to dive into it.

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Angry Robot – 2010 – John Picacio.

The setting for Zoo City is a fresh breath of air. After committing severe crimes, criminals find themselves attached to strange animals, much like a wizard’s familiar or a witch’s cat. These animals stick around for the rest of your life—unless you’re unlucky enough for your animal to get killed, in which case the hellish Undertow reduces you to ash. On the bright side, the animals give their bearer with strange magical powers determined without rhyme or reason. Trapped in the slums and considered second-class citizens on a good day, these “animalled” people get by on using their strange powers. Or by reverting to their lives of crime, depending.

Zinzi December is one such animalled person: former journalist, former junkie, now laden with a sloth and the ability to sense someone’s missing things and track it back to the item’s current location. She lives in the burned-out suburbs of Johannesburg with other undesirable animalled, squatting in a tenement in the midst of gang-war territory with her on-off lover Benoît (a Congo war refugee) and his mongoose. Zinzi uses her tracking ability to take odd-jobs to supplement her work on Nigerian/419 email scams, such as the task to track down a rich old lady’s ring. When she returns with it, she finds out the old lady has been murdered—and against her better judgment, and the fact her power works on items and not people, she ends up hired by a mysterious animalled pair to track down a missing teenybopper starlet. Zinzi could use the cash to pay off her debt to the criminal syndicate running the email scams, and her past as a journalist gives her a credible cover to her investigation.

Zinzi should have followed her instincts and passed on the job: there’s more at play than she realizes; there always is. Unraveling the labyrinthine machinations of her employers and her runaway target could end up costing Zinzi her life; diving into her journalist role takes her across the lines between the animalled slums and the snobbish normal society of Johannesburg, and re-introduces Giovanni, her former boss and lover, into her life. Entwined in the mix are her duties as a scammer and the revelation that her current lover Benoît’s wife and children may still be alive. And traveling through the criminal underworld to try and find the missing starlet unveils secrets and schemes Zinzi was not meant to know.

The words “urban fantasy” have always been a turn-off for me, because the images associated with them are usually leather-clad skanks rubbing shoulders with werewolves and vampires. In very painful poses. You know, a genre appealing to the Twilight and Anita Blake crowds. Well, it’s a good thing that bias didn’t keep me away from Zoo City, because I’m pleased to eat crow and say it was fantastic. This is urban fantasy I can get behind. Never mind that it reads like a neo-noir thriller, skulking around in the sewage of South Africa’s blighted urban jungle: that’s just icing on the cake. The fantasy elements are unique and imaginative, a strong new direction to take old tropes of magic and the wizard’s familiar.

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Angry Robot – 2010 – Joey Hi-Fi. I’m much more impressed with this stark cover, for the British hardcover edition. It won a BSFA Award after all.

Zinzi is capable of wonderful turns of phrase, laden with a cynical outlook and tragic history that slowly unravels itself. The writing is top notch, mixing impressive wordplay with the imaginative setting. And Beukes keeps the plot rolling along, delving deeper and deeper into the rotten South African underbelly. Beukes nails the neo-noir thriller, playing in the bleakest of dark settings and amping it up through the use of the animals and magic; Zinzi descends into the foulest of Johannesburg’s locales—not just the sewers—over the course of her investigation. The writing ranges from immaculate to jaw-dropping, and matches the spectacular pacing well. I understand why it won a Clarke award: Beukes is a great up-and-comer. And I really hope she continues with the world imagined in Zoo City.

I’ve seen a rise in the number of South African-based authors and stories in the past few years, and most of them are laden with echoes of apartheid—a cultural scar the country is still working to heal. Much like District 9, Zoo City is genius in using imaginative worlds to echo apartheid, this time the ramshackle animalled slumdogs. The reason for why people gain their own familiars is never quite explained, and seems to baffle scientists, though the correlation with animals and crime isn’t lost on the layman: animalled are second-class citizens, and they know it. For some, the animals and their magic is power; for others, a constant reminders of their sins. Zinzi’s backstory is hazy, but it involves her drug addiction and killing her brother; her sloth is a grim reminder of how far she’s fallen, a curse to bear for bad choices or bad luck in the past.

My sole complaint is with the pacing. Part One is slow and methodical, building the world and Zinzi’s investigation. The pieces of the puzzle are dropped onto the table; the borders are arranged, a few pieces fit together into bands or two or three, but for the most part they exist in a nebulous void. Then Part Two begins, some seventy-percent through the book; the puzzle completes itself at once and falls into thriller territory with a climax that blitzes the reader. I guess my problem is the lack of foreshadowing; of foreshadowing there is plenty, but it feels like the switch is thrown at the breakpoint between parts one and two, taking us from a precise and methodical speed of three all the way up to a grisly and breakneck eleven. The bad guys are way worse than imagined, and have their own underground lair and monstrous beast. It’s a far cry from Zinzi talking to trustees at the rehab clinic. A minor gripe, I’ll grant, but one I feel compelled to make.

Still, I think I’ve made my position clear; I loved reading this book. Beukes combines fantastic writing with impressive creativity to create an excellent novel. The world is alive with depth and flavor; the characters are superb, sympathetic, and complex; and despite my gripes about the plot, it’s handled with brilliance. I think I have a new shining example of what I think all things urban fantasy should be. Best of all, it was pure reading pleasure; not only did it combine two of my favorite genres, mysteries and SF/fantasy, but it was reading bliss. The only thing that could make it better is a sequel—granted, that could also make it worse. I’ll just console myself in knowing that there’s at least one Zoo City, and that Lauren Beukes has written (and is writing) more books.