Imagine a world where, after you commit a crime, you find yourself with an animal familiar. Neither you nor the familiar can stand to be away from each other, making it obvious for everyone that you did something very, very bad: you’re now a Zoo, or an “animalled” or a dozen other names – you might be even seen as a witch, and you’re certainly ostracized, even if your sin wasn’t all that big (there is no rule which sin triggers becoming an “animalled”). Zinzi December, a former journalist and a former junky, spent some time in prison for murder, got a sloth as her constant companion, and is now trying to pay back what the debt her former drug habit created. She does it by finding missing things (it is a magical gift she got after the sloth became her companion), by Nigerian scams she does for the guy to whom she owes a lot of money, and then gets a case of a missing child singer, a new music star in South Africa.
Now, she usually doesn’t do missing persons, because her gift works for things, but the money is good (even if her employer and his associates, two Zoos, are repulsive), and she’s becoming desperate to pay off her debt. So she accepts the case, and her journey to the dark side of Johannesburg begins. She will have help of her sloth and her boyfriend (a Zoo with a mongoose), she will contact her former associates – some will help her, some will turn out to create more problems than help – but in the end it will mostly be her and her sloth trying to survive in a world seeing them as scum.
In the world of Zoo City, if you commit a crime, or if you make a sin (and who doesn’t?), you might find yourself with an animal companion. Your age, ethnicity, race, religion, social status don’t matter in this. The animal you receive doesn’t have much to do with the nature of your sin/crime. A terrorist can get a penguin, a nine-year-old boy can get a cobra, a petty thief can get a tiger. The “animalled” have been studied by scientists, but nobody was able to find a rule.
In some countries, “animalled” get into prison (even if they committed no crime, or if their crime was not something you’d normally end up in prison for) or get killed by default. In others, they can walk the streets freely, but are being ostracized in other ways, they’re always being suspected for something, can’t rent apartments in some parts of the towns, or get rooms in hotels etc. What adds to the fear of “animalled” is the fact that anyone can become one of them at some point, for who is without a sin?
The world of Zoo City is what is most fascinating in this novel. The characters are interesting and believable (it was refreshing to me to read about female African protagonist), the plot is good, the writing is without a flaw, but it is the world of the “animalled” that captured my attention. The approach to world building in Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City is closer to the science fiction than urban fantasy approach: that is, one new thing is introduced (the “Zoos”), and then the impact of that one thing on the society and on some examples of that society (an ex-con, a refugee from another country, a music producer, some poor children nearby the sewer system, a famous singer, a terrorist and so on) is explored, and explored in detail, without ever overstuffing the main story with it. What also added to my enjoyment in this novel was the communication between the “animalled” and their animal companions – although the humans and their animal companions have some basic awareness of each other’s feelings, intentions, ideas, although through that awareness they can communicate their needs to each other, there are no talking animals, the world isn’t similar to Aesop Fables or Narnia.
Zoo City is a fascinating urban fantasy novel with science fiction approach and elements of noir thriller describing a near-future Johannesburg where the Zoos – humans who got an animal companion after committing a sin – try to survive in an unfriendly world, seen through the eyes of a strong, believably flawed female protagonist. It is a compelling, thought-provoking novel with dark humor, and an enjoyable read for those who love urban fantasy, science fiction, noir or simply a good, well-written book.