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Surprisingly Pretty Decent
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.