Author: Lauren Beukes
Publication Date: 7/19/11
Publisher: Angry Robot
Blurb (GR): Zinzi has a Sloth on her back, a dirty 419 scam habit and a talent for finding lost things. But when a little old lady turns up dead and the cops confiscate her last paycheck, she’s forced to take on her least favourite kind of job – missing persons.
Being hired by reclusive music producer Odi Huron to find a teenybop pop star should be her ticket out of Zoo City, the festering slum where the criminal underclass and their animal companions live in the shadow of hell’s undertow.
Instead, it catapults Zinzi deeper into the maw of a city twisted by crime and magic, where she’ll be forced to confront the dark secrets of former lives – including her own.
Just when I think there is no urban fantasy in existence which breaks away from the formulaic and same-old-same-old, I come across this gem, thanks to Guardian book podcast. Hurray!
As with most of inventive and unorthodox genre deviations, describing Zoo City is a pain. I'm tempted to just call it a Paolo Bacigalupi/The Golden Compass mix and leave it at that, but I'm afraid I'll scare the readers away.
So, Zoo city. What is it? It's a sort of ghetto area in modern day/alt universe Johannesburg, residents of which literally carry the burdens of their sins on their shoulders. In a form of animals. Zinzi December is fresh out of prison, with a Sloth and her guilt weighing her down. She makes her living by scamming naive losers on-line (glance at your email, I bet you have at least one message asking you to help transfer money from some African country for a generous fee) and putting to work her newly acquired magic skills (the only perk of "the animalled") - she can find lost personal items - keys, wallets, rings, that sort of thing. When Zinzi's creditor tightens the screws on her, she decides to free herself of her drug debt by taking on a case that she normally wouldn't - to find a missing person, specifically, a half of a popular music duo iJusi.
Like all urban fantasy novels, Zoo City is a mystery, a thrilling one. But what sets it apart for me is not only the paranormal uniqueness (the whole idea of being an animalled and the moral implications that come with being one), but its very distinct sense of place. Joburg breathes. It's a vibrant, eclectic mishmash of drugs, sex, music, refugees, voodoo and, well, brutal humanity. I loved it.