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on October 6, 2013
I came to this book with fairly low expectations but ended up enjoying it, more or less. In a future world where (after some-unnamed cataclysm, though it seems to be terroristic in nature) those who sin have animal familiars, low-level magic powers, and the constant threat of encountering damnation ("the Undertow"), our heroine starts searching for a missing Afro-Pop diva and runs into the usual adventures.

Stuff it does right: the world is very well-presented, particularly in it's use of magic, which is never heavy handed. This is basically low-level stuff but it's blended seamlessly into the world, no small trick with such an oddball idea -- this is a world full of people running around with animals, for Pete's sake. Yet you end up buying it, more or less, by the end. Beukes' South African setting may have helped here, as the environmental disparities (a shaman in a Dolce and Gabbino vest who keeps his gross magic elixir in an empty two liter Coke bottle, for instance) come across as charming, somehow fitting. This is a ramshackle world generally, built together from flotsam -- you buy it. It's never over-explained, always a trap for fantasy writers but Beukes leaves a lot of what's going on unstated, which keeps the magic genuinely mysterious and powerful when it does appear. The explanations she does offer are done very cleverly, through other "electronic flotsam" -- a précis of a scientific paper, reviews of a documentary, a music article -- which helps set the world even more. Very clever, this.

I also liked the heroine. I confess to generally not liking female PI books: either the stories retain their edge but the women are laughable Mary Sue's/Wonder Women or the leads are believable but the story itself is a pile of mush. Beukes manages to steer between the Scylla and Charibdes here, Zinzi is a believable woman but the story still has a snap to it. One of the main reasons I think is that Beukes was smart enough not to make her a superheroine: Zinzi is clearly the physical inferior at every action sequence, which helps to up the stakes and feels more "real", honestly. (Things get a bit out of hand at the climax, but even there she mainly outthinks, not out fights, her opponents.) Beukes is also not afraid to show us Zinzi's bad sides, as well: she's good at conning people into talking to her but she's also shown to be a conman more generally, bilking a perfectly nice couple out of their life savings.

Stuff that goes wrong: Actually I think the biggest problems here are editorial, not from Beukes per se. If there was ever a book that needed another pass with the editor, it's ZOO CITY. There are sections here that are charmingly written, even quite well done in a way, but add nothing to the story and probably could've been cut (the whole visit to the "rehab" place, probably there mainly because Beukes went to one and wanted to use her research; the chase sequence in the sewer tunnels, which is well-written but just sort of stuck there). Parts of this seem padded. On the other hand, there are sections that could've used a bit more, the climax in particular seems over-rushed and would've benefitted from a beat or two extra.

There's also a couple of unanswered questions in the story that would've benefitted from some authorial explanation, but I blame Beukes editor for this more than Beukes herself, you have editors to pick up on stuff like this. For instance, I'm not sure, right at the beginning, I understand why Zinzi takes the case, there's a jump from "not on your life" to begrudging acceptance that I just didn't get, and would've benefitted from a paragraph or two of exposition. Similarly -- I'll have to be vague because it's the climax -- we learn the bad guy's motive (and it's very cleverly done), I even buy some of the collateral damage on the way to achieving the motive. We're ultimately told, though, that he's a Very Very Very bad guy, and I'm not sure I really follow that, the reason for all the extra stuff. I think there's a hint why in the story, if you're looking for it, but that too could've been spelled out more.

So a little rough here and there, not perfect, but it does a lot of stuff right. The magic and world is a nice break from most typical fantasy fiction, as well, which also helps. Recommended.
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on January 8, 2014
If you enjoy rich language, freshly arranged, like unusual food in a foreign culture - unfamiliar spices mixed with unusual ingredients yielding a zesty and tasty meal - then you will enjoy this book. Beukes' writing drew me in and kept me feasting. Delightful, yummy, seven course word feast. Five stars for writing.

Two stars for believable character motivations. Zinzi, the main character, evolves from housekeeper of lost items, living on the fringes of poverty (with all the familiar coping options), to a determined noir detective, bent on righting wrongs. The motivation for the transformation is as murky as the magic in this alternate universe. Is Zinzi compelled to risk her life for the money, a chance for redemption for past (hazy and not fully explained) tragedies, the promise of something like love, or as the ultimate drug infused escape (perhaps even suicidal release from it all)? If the novel helped us see Zinzi gripped by these motivations and showed some cognition of the transformation she endures, the novel would have been very satisfying.

As it is, though, it seems Beukes uses this mixture of magic, redemption, escape, and unforeseen consequences, as a voyeristic journalist. Throughout the novel I felt there was an unseen reporter, rooting for the next unsavory and sadistic act to explode, simply so it could be reported. Kinda like crime scene paparazzi. Not there to understand what happened, but to get the best photo or video of the wreckage because that is what thrills and sells. Tabloid instincts trumped investigative crusader.

I loved the feast and will remember many of the dishes for some time. Beukes’ writing is terrific. But overall the meal wasn’t fully satisfying.
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on November 11, 2016
Zoo City is one of the most inventive urban fantasies I’ve read. It was an engrossing book with plenty to keep me interested, although I found the ending to be weak.

Zinzi is an animalled – a person for whom the shadows rise up out of the earth to give an animal after they commit a crime. If the animal dies, the shadows will rise out of the earth again and take the animalled with it. In Zinzi’s case, she’s got a dead brother and a sloth.

The set up of the “animalled” is very interesting and what makes the story so unique. The animal is like a physical representation of their past sins, but it’s up in the air whether the animal is meant to punish or rehabilitate.

The one bonus of being an “animalled” is that each one comes with a gift. For Zinzi, it’s a knack to find lost things, which is one of the ways in which she makes her living. The plot thus revolves around her tracking down a missing pop star with ensuing complications.

The concept was definitely the greatest thing about the book. Zinzi, a black South African woman trained as a journalist, was a fairly enjoyable antihero, and while I may never have connected to her very closely, I liked reading about her. The setting of Johannesburg was also aptly captured.

The plot is the weakest point. It was serviceable for the most part, but ultimately let me down at the end. I think that an ending needs some sense of achievement or conclusion, of which Zoo City had neither. The mystery may have been solved, but little of it’s end result related to Zinzi. Nor does her character arc provide any sense of growth or satisfaction. In short, there was not a sense of fulfillment. If this was a series, the ending might make sense, but it does not work within the context of a stand alone novel.

I would recommend Zoo City to people looking for an unique urban fantasy story. Despite the weak ending, I found it overall enjoyable and would recommend it.
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on September 16, 2016
I think this is a good book, but not necessarily my kind of book.

Zoo City is a dark and gritty part of a dystopian Johannesburg (which, the author notes later make clear, closely resembles the actual Jo'burg). There's been some major change in the world, such that criminals get a supernatural animal showing up and living with them like an inseparable pet (separation brings on agony, death of the animal results in a horrible magical death for the associated person). This also gives them a supernatural power of some kind.

The main character Zinzi December, a former journalist, has a sloth and an ability to find things. Forced out of home and profession by her crime - which resulted in her brother's death - she makes a marginal living by finding things, and as a front for various scams. She's hired/ coerced to find a young pop star who's gone missing.

What I liked: World-building, ideas, pace. Even though it wasn't my kind of book, I kept reading and couldn't put down the book.
Didn't like: Grim-dark, lots of gore, very high body-count with some really icky moments.
No really likeable characters.
I knew I was in trouble when I was most interested in the sloth's happiness.

Glad I read it, but not going back for more.
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on July 10, 2014
What an amazingly written, stunning novel. The future as Lauren Beukes sees it is bleak, but incredibly realistic. Except for the magical realism part of the animals and the Undertow and stuff, but that was well done enough to seem fairly acceptable without having to just go "Oh, now it's a science fictionfantasy thing". The animals never detract from the story, just add facets to the characters, although I dooooo wish that there'd be more focusing specifically on that aspect of society. It just kinda got taken as rote and never expanded upon. That's not a bad thing, however, because the actual plot is just as gripping as one plumbing every depth of this new concept.

Zinzi December is a very well written protagonist who is human, not some perfect-except-for-one-flaw marionette person, like so many other stories will often have. She has ups, she has downs, she is neurotic in just the right way to seem human... And she busts her ass to try to solve this mystery.

Not to paint with a broad brush, but many aspects of this story reminded me strongly of another African-set Sci-fi story, "The Ear, The Eye and the Arm" that was one of my favorite novels as a kid. I'm extremely glad I read this, and I am gonna buy Moxyland ASAP.
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on September 7, 2017
Zoo City is a fantasy sci-fi thriller set in the near future in Johannesburg which uses Shona cosmology and animal familiars to examine a racism that is so ingrained that many don’t even realize that it’s there. Lauren Beukes’ descriptions of both the vibe of the city and its physical reality capture the twin undercurrents of promise and foreboding that are Johannesburg today. The book suffers from a common flaw often found in the fantasy/sci-fi genre: while the setting up of Beukes “world” and the storytelling and dialogue are spot on, the ending is unsatisfying and not on par with the rest of the book. The ride is much better than the final destination. That said, I read this while visiting Johannesburg and “the ride” is so well done that I would recommend it to anyone visiting the city.
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on July 7, 2014
This is a really entertaining read. The world building is excellent, and Zinzi December is a great character. The dash of magic into the gritty Johannesburg setting works really well. The idea of being 'animalled' for crimes is very creative and well executed. I totally bought the burden and social stigma of being an "Apo" (Aposymbiot), the Zoo City ghetto, and Zinzi's dark side scamming innocents out of their life savings with 419 emails.

I found the transition from "I don't do missing persons" to being a private eye a little under-explained. I think the author intended to show Zinzi getting sucked into the investigation reluctantly, but it didn't read like that, I never really got an insight into her motivations. But generally I liked that many aspects of the world weren't explained, it kept a real air of mystery to the story, i.e what crimes warrant an animal? What is the Undertow? What are the properties of the connection to the animal?

Beukes takes an interesting approach to filling in details, she does it with a number of factual interstitials: IMDB entries, newspaper articles etc. I liked this idea: some of them were really well written and revealed detail in clever ways, others (like the IMDB entry and comments) were fairly annoying to read but still very believable.

The writing is really good, full of ironic humour and witticisms:

"All it takes is one Afgan warlord to show up with a Penguin in a bulletproof vest, and everything science and religion thought they knew goes right out the window."

Some people have complained that the good guys don't win cleanly. I hate those sorts of endings, and while there is some raggedness to this ending I felt like the opposite, that most things got wrapped up a little too neatly. The climax also feels rather rushed and broke with the dark mysterious feel of the rest of the book for a Van-Damme-style finish. Contrast the brilliantly written off-balance dirty fight in the sewers with the final scenes: I wish the climax had been more in the style of the former.

Some more choice quotes:

"Nzambe aza na zamba te. God is not in the forest. Maybe He is too busy looking after sports teams or worrying about teenagers having sex before marriage. I think they take up a lot of His time."

"They burned this neighbourhood down in the early 1900s to prevent the spread of bubonic plague, and it occurs to me that they should consider doing it again, to purge the blight of well-meaning hipsters desperately trying to paint it rainbow."

Read more of my reviews at g-readinglist.blogspot.com
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on January 4, 2012
I wasn't sure what to expect in an Urban Fantasy set in an alternate Johannesburg, South Africa where society has been heavily affected by the Shift.

Apparently now, if you commit a terrible crime, your own guilt can be manifested as an animal (tapir, sparrow, scorpion, sloth, vervet, dog) that you must stay constantly physically near or suffer intense pain. And if the animal dies, you are swallowed up by a mysterious darkness called "The Undertow." The people who get these animals (mashavi) also seem to be the ones with a magical power; the power to charm, to intensify emotions, to move things, etc.

Zinzi December is an ex-journalist with a sloth on her back and the mashavi to find lost things. She lives in Zoo City; the slum where all the "zoos" (people with animals) are segregated by prejudice and class issues.

When her latest client dies before she can hand back a lost ring, two "procurers" for a famous music producer convince her to find a lost pop idol instead, drawing her deep into the underbelly of Zoo City and humanity in all shapes and vices.

This book blew me away. It was awesome. In high school when I first read Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and it transported me to an entirely different world with cool people and cool ideas; that's the way I felt here.

Beukes' Joannesburg is entirely convincing, and dreary, and cool, and full of people you wish you could spend another whole novel getting to know.

Zinzi is no simple Mary Sue, either. She's got a terrible past. She's trapped in her current life because of a drug habit, her sloth, and society. While she tries to keep her nose clean, she constantly walks a fine line, and her morality is fairly pliable. But reading her, you don't care. Beukes makes us fall in love with Zinzi and her gangster friends, and then drags us through the filthy gutters (literally) of Johannesburg and the way people must live in slums.

As Zinzi gets closer and closer to the truth about the missing idol, things get progressively more gruesome and more and more terrible choices are made, more violence is revealed underneath the fine layer of normalcy Zinzi tries to maintain. And when the idol's fate is revealed, the book is so tightly constructed that you can look back and see all the hints the story gave you about who were the bad guys without giving it all away. A perfect balance of clues and tension.

In Zoo City the violence isn't there to shock or entertain, it's a reminder of how grim life is, and the many ways in which humans can survive.

Awesome.

This Book's Snack Designation Rating: Parmesan garlic kettle chips for the rich, rich flavor and crunch, and then you look at the bag's ingredients and see that while they were explosively delicious, they were also multi grain and you have to go back in your mind and enjoy the flavor all over again
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on September 10, 2016
I believe this novel is a good choice for young adults looking for a different perspective on the world. Mistakes that people make and how society treats them. It isn't too dense, but it isn't the easiest read. In order to understand what is going on in the book, you have to stay engaged, because all of the small details lead to a bigger idea. *SPOILER ALERT* (not really) For example, with the Undertow, readers are given small details about The Undertow that they have to piece together to make sense, in my opinion. Personally, I still have no idea what The Undertow is exactly... I also wish I knew exactly how those who were animalled came to be exactly... I feel as though if the novel began with a quick explanation then everything would be a lot easier to take in. This novel definitely gave me a new way to look at mistakes and the treatment of people over the globe. Personally, I found similarities between being animalled and being black: Zinzi's treatment, the "ghettos", and the blatant racism or "animalism"that was displayed within the novel. The novel gives readers a new way to look at those who are not treated equally may that be being black, an addict, a street worker, etc...
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on November 26, 2014
Even before The Shining Girls really put her on the nationwide map, Lauren Beukes was creating quite the name for herself; having finally caught up on her acclaimed sophomore effort Zoo City, it's not hard to see why. Part cyberpunk thriller, part noir detective story, part strange fantasy, Zoo City is set in a Johannesburg not too far in the future, and follows a disgraced journalist who's kicked her drug habit and makes her money finding objects for people - well, that and running spammer schemes for the man who owns her debt. That's a solid enough foundation, and Beukes runs with it, creating an intricate plot that weaves together the darkest aspects of the pop music scene, the underclass structure of Johannesburg, and strong character work into a rich and satisfying story. But none of that touches on the most fascinating aspect of Zoo City, and that's the animals. See, in Beukes' version of the future, those who cross an undetermined moral line (most often killing, but it's implied that it's not as simple as that) find themselves linked to a strange, magical spirit animal. And while the animal often gives them a magical talent as well (say, the finding of lost objects), the social stigma is impossible to let go of, which allows Beukes to bring in factors about social strata, guilt, shame, and the stigma heaped upon those trying to leave their lives behind. That Zoo City does all this is wonderful enough; that it does it all while mainly focusing on telling a gripping, sharp, compelling story about abductions, violence, crime, and more is all the better. If Zoo City has a weak point, it's the ending, where Beukes rushes things a bit and ends up creating a fantastic finale that feels a bit out of nowhere and left me scratching my head; at the same time, the strong character work she's done and the anchoring of her tale in rich, fertile emotional ground makes the finale work, even if you have plot questions about how it all unfolds. Zoo City is a knockout, by any standards; the central premise is a fascinating one, the world is rich and fascinating (and Beukes' ability to build that world both through character and through articles/websites/etc., a la Watchmen, only helps that aspect work even better), and the characters hook us in on an emotional level. It's a fantastic read, and one that proves The Shining Girls was no fluke; this is a fantastic author, and one I'm definitely going to be reading more of as soon as possible.
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