Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Life’s full of regrets, mistakes, lost opportunities and bad memories. Sometimes you can see them in someone’s eyes or the way they act, but sometimes they’re hidden under nonchalance and a bright smile. But imagine if you couldn’t hide it-if everyone could see your past sins in a physical form?

That’s part of the premise of Lauren Beukes’ excellent novel Zoo City. People who have committed a violent act, almost always a murder, are connected with an apparent representation of that crime in the form of an animal. This can take the form of anything: a Butterfly, a Mongoose, a Turtle, a Cougar. The animals are a species that belongs to the person’s geographic home, and they come with burdens and advantages. People with animals can call on the gifts of their animal in a small way. They get a specific gift as well, such as being able to track down missing objects once they’ve met you (and vice versa) or sucking in your happy memories.

The downsides include the fact that if you get too far from your animal, there’s intense discomfort and anxiety. If your animal dies, you are devoured by a formless shadow called the Undertow. And of course there’s the obvious prejudice and dislike; the “animalled” or “zoos” are killed automatically in China, and in the US are second-class citizens subject to intense genetic scans and check-ins with the government.

In South Africa, where the story takes place, the zoos have a modicum of respect. There’s a housing development called Zoo City where many of them live, and while it’s not a palace it’s a community. That’s where Zinzi December makes her home. A former journalist and wild child/drug addict, Zinzi makes a living tracking down lost objects and sending out scam emails to pay off her debts. She would also make Kristen Bell die of envy, because Zinzi’s animal is a Sloth that is usually found draped around her shoulders. It’s the result of her brother’s death, and part of the reason for her downward slide.

Today however, things are different: she’s been hired to find a missing teen pop star, her last client ended up dead, and she’s low on options. She has a few contacts, the burden of her obvious bad past in cuddly animal form, and plenty of determination and strength to unravel the real crime, using both her smile and her Sloth to make things right.

As is usual with these stories she soon learns that she’s in very deep water. Everyone with an animal (and everyone without) has a secret they’re not telling us, and they fact that they’re seen with suspicion by “normal” people means an extra level of distrust toward each other as well. At the same time, the presence of the animals leads to some funny moments that are sketched in as deftly as the thrills and horror that also abound

I’ve read a good amount of urban fantasy, starting with Jim Butcher’s Dresden FilesZoo City is easily one of the best examples of the genre I’ve yet encountered, and I highly recommend it to anyone. This book sports accolades from Bill Willingham and William Gibson, as well as an Arthur C. Clark Award. All of these are impressive and well deserved. Beukes’ style is quick and sharp, mixing local language and information about zoos with a cynical, bright-eyed examination of the grim world in which she lives, and the difficulty of walking about with your sins out for everyone to see. Tonight I will likely dream of what my own animal would be in her world.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

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