“Lots of innovation in this melding of noir detective, cyberpunk, and urban fantasy genres. She doesn’t go overboard with any one of this triad. It was a fun ride mixed with a lot of disturbing elements. Having a likeable female hero helped me accommodate the widespread despair in the contemporary Johannesburg setting. But I am led to render a 3.5 star rating because of personal displeasure with the shocking and implausible dénouement to the tale. But then maybe horror is the 4th genre in the blend, which is not such a draw for me.
The story is set in South Africa in the approximate present, with technology and the local and global social structures recognizably current. What is different is the emergence of a class of people who are “Aposymbiont” with an animal (“zoo” people in slang). Somewhat similar to the people in Pullman’s series that began with “The Golden Compass”, these individuals have an emotional dependence and telepathic relationship with a specific animal. For our hero, thirty-something Zinzi December, her critter is a sloth; that for her boyfriend Benoit is a mongoose. These folks are downtrodden, tend to live in slums (“Zoo City”), and, though protected by civil rights laws, they are subject to much discrimination and tend to suffer stigma as a consequence. On the plus side, each has a special semi-magical talent. For Zinzi, her power lies in getting mental pictures of things that people have lost, a skill she harnesses to make a living.
At first, the premise for the zoo people sounds silly. But having a close animal buddy wasn’t that hard to put under my wing. And the first-person perspective employed by Beukes drew me quickly into Zinzi’s case, which is finding a missing ring in the sewer system. The magical element for her character is easy to take, not much more than psionic skills claimed by many in the “real” world. When her elderly client turns up murdered, her financial straits force her to take on a less preferred type of case, that of a missing person. A wealthy, reclusive music producer contracts her to find a missing teen Afro-pop star. Using traditional gumshoe methods, she works up the usual range of subjects posing as a journalist, giving us a tour of the music scene and the lifestyles of the haves and have nots. When dangers and threats emerge from rocks she turns over, she uses her wits to survive more than the overused kickass toughness. The sloth helps watch her back in some cases, but largely is along for the ride.
The detective work in an exotic city is satisfying. As with typical noir heroes, Zinzi has a good heart, but is jaded and compromised from past mistakes. The whole bit about how and why she, and others, are cursed with the animal symbiosis is the elephant in the room. From the beginning, all we know is that for her it has something to do with her recovery from addiction, which feels like some kind of Faustian bargain. The negative attitudes that the larger society places on the zoo people feels like some kind of metaphor for the aftermath of apartheid. In other ways, the burden of the animal link has religious overtones, like a Christian cross to bear for sins committed, some kind of voodoo punishment, or a twist on Hindu reincarnation. There is meat in the rest of the book for the reader to explore and dwell on these possibilities.
Perhaps if I could digest a little better the shocking climax in the light of these questions, I would see a way to up my rating. I am impressed enough to read the other book by this talented writer, her debut dystopic novel Moxyland.