I’ve been wanting to read Zoo City for a while now. Ever since I read Lauren Beukes’ other novel, Moxyland. It’s been a while since I read Moxyland, but I seem to recall it making at least one highly prolific best-of list and my hopes were that Zoo City would be able to do the same.
There’s a number of things about Beukes’ writing that I’m a fan of. For one, she sets her tales in South Africa, which is a nice change of setting considering that most of the fantasy genre is set in some sort of European-type place, and most of the urban fantasies I’ve read take place either in London, or some place in the States. Secondly, Beukes imbues her writing with a freshness and hipness that simultaneously makes me feel old, but also makes me feel like I’m hanging out with the cool kids. Thirdly, she has proven in her two published works that she can deliver a plot with lots of ins and outs that moves along with rapid pacing. All of these qualities are present in Zoo City, but shockingly, I wasn’t nearly as impressed with this effort as I was with Moxyland.
Zoo City is set in Johannesburg in the near future, in a world where those racked by guilt acquire some sort of symbiotic familiar as a life companion. If you are like me, then there’s been times when you’ve wished for a sweet animal companion a la Chewbacca or Pantalaimon, but that’s not the case here, as those who have familiars are outcasts of society. Just like real life, where people tend to fear that which is different from what has been defined as the norm, those folks in Zoo City who have familiars are feared not only for their animal companions, but because that connection also grants them some sort of special ability. Zinzi December, the protagonist, and first person voice of the narrative, has a sloth familiar, an overwhelming amount of debt to a shady criminal, and the ability to find lost things.
Usually Zinzi just finds missing wedding rings or small personal items, but when her most recent client turns up dead and the police confiscate her earnings from the job, she is forced to take on a missing person case that turns out to be a whole lot more than she bargained for.
I’m usually a big fan of mysteries, especially those with a fantastical flair, but I wasn’t too impressed with this one. Sure, the plot in Zoo City was fast paced and full of twists and turns, but for my tastes, this one came across as just too standard. The twists came at all the predictable places, and the mystery unraveled in ways that didn’t do much to surprise, or thrill me.
The biggest reason this novel fell flat for me is that I was never able to connect to the characters in a way that made me care about what happened to them over the course of the novel. Even though Zinzi was the voice of the narrative, I never really felt like I got a good feel for her, or that the story got below the surface into what makes her tick. This was far different from my reading experience in Moxyland where I felt like the characters were all very accessible and easy to relate to.
In addition to Zinzi, the secondary characters were just that, very secondary. There are a number of other characters that play a vital role in the story, but none of them ever showed any flashes of brilliance and managed to stand out as memorable characters.
I’ve found that when the author fails to populate a novel with interesting characters, I tend to be much less engaged in the actual reading of the novel. It's great characters that suck me into a story and that just didn’t happen here. A sad development for sure because this was a book that I really wanted to like and I was pulling for it the whole time. In the end though, I was underwhelmed.
As I mentioned earlier, this book has its positives which I touched on briefly. Even though I wasn’t a big fan of this one, I’m grateful for authors like Beukes who strive to take fantasy to new places. Beukes takes fantasy to new places both literally, (like Africa for example) and figuratively. I’d love to see more authors follow in Beukes’ footsteps and break the mold by moving away from fantasy norms and see where their imagination will take them. Beukes certainly has the skills to become a standout author in the genre and even though this one didn’t quite do it for me, I'll be eager to check out whatever she writes next. Also, it bears mentioning that even though I wasn’t such a huge fan, Zoo City won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, so differing opinions exist.