Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy, Content Design & UX.

2012 Reading challenge, book 1: Zoo City

One of my goals for the year is to read at least 40 books (at least 25 of which must be fantasy or sci-fi), either on paper or in digital format. So far, I’m off to a good start, as I’ve already completed two books and am partway through a third. After that, there are at least three more books (all non-fiction, all about the process of writing) that I want to read. With that in mind, I’m going to posting reviews of my 2012 books. So here goes: my thoughts on the first book I read this year.

Title: Zoo City
Author: Lauren Beukes
Publisher: Angry Robot Books
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: eBook

The plot: Zinzi December is a disgraced pop journalist with a Sloth on her shoulder who pays off the debts she incurred as a junkie by writing 419 scam emails. Like all residents of “Zoo City,” a slum in Johannesburg, she’s been “animalled” – that is, she’s done something so awful that she’s now been spiritually conjoined with an animal familiar.

Like all “zoos,” her animal has also given her a unique power, or mashavi. Normally, while Zinzi uses her mashavi of finding lost things to earn some money on the side, she refuses to find lost people. However, the shady associates of a music producer have asked her to find a missing teeny-bop starlet, and the payment for doing so is too great to turn down. When she digs deeper into the girl’s disappearance, she gets tangled up in a world of drugs, lies, and black magic…

What I liked: I loved the merging of fantasy aspects with real world ones. No one knows what first caused the mysterious “zoo plague,” but interstitial chapters within the book flesh out the world of Zoo City by providing snippets of academic and pop culture material written about the “zoo” phenomenon. Cleverly, one of those snippets contains a citation to an academic article reinterpreting Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy in light of the zoo plague.

On top of that, the setting of Johannesburg is both familiar (in that it’s wonderfully textured and realized) and strange (in that the only other major spec-fic story I can think of set in Johannesburg is District 9). Finally, Zinzi December is a marvelous character. She’s smart, tough, self-serving, and able to think on her feet. She’s hard to like but easy to admire, and I take my hat off to Lauren Beukes for writing a main character that is so complicated. I wouldn’t want Zinzi to be my friend, but I would want her to have my back.

What I disliked: I feel that the book’s chief misstep was the mystery itself. Of course, as with many crime/detective stories, nothing is as it seems and the people asking Zinzi to take on the job have ulterior motives.

Ultimately, the resolution of the story – involving murders, kidnappings, blackmail, and a heck of a lot of black magic – seems too bloated and frenetic to appreciate. Although I’ve muddled my way through some of the unspoken motives of the perpetrators, now that I’ve finished the book I feel that there are a lot of plot holes I still can’t patch over.

The verdict: I liked it, but not as much as I had hoped to. I came to this book with high expectations based on some interviews with the author that I listened to and on the book’s surprise win of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. However, I’ve never been a big fan of detective fiction, and the book’s melding of it with speculative fiction/magical realism left an odd taste in my mouth. I wanted to see more of the slums of Johannesburg, hear more South African slang, and read more about how zoo people have become a new global underclass. I also wanted to see more of Zinzi’s backstory, which I think has been left too much to the imagination. Instead, I got a detective story mixed into all of it, and it dampened my enjoyment of the book.

Next up: How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie.