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Goat Heads and Sand Burrs, P. Kirby's Reading Blog

The good, bad, and fugly books I've read.
Zoo City - Lauren Beukes Original urban fantasy. Absent are the usual sexy vampires and lusty werewolves. Instead of an American city, the story is set in Johannesburg, South Africa. The protagonist isn't an ass-kicking heroine charged by some paranormal agency to battle things that go bump in the night. There isn't a love triangle. Men don't instantly fall in love with the protagonist. There aren't endless passages about how sexy the heroine looks in her latest outfit*.

It does, however, feature the typical somewhat embittered heroine who has few friends, estranged from family. (There are no happy families in urban fantasy.) Zinzi December killed her brother. The narrative doesn't make it clear how this happened, but his death was obviously a consequence of Zinzi's drug habit. The world Zinzi inhabits is pretty much our own, with one exception. About a decade ago, those who committed murder found that their crime was manifested in an Animal (yep, capital "A") familiar, the phenomena continuing to this day. The Animals serves as both a kind of guardian and scarlet letter. As long as the Animal is alive, the "animaled" person is safe from the Undertow, a kind of metaphysical, life-ending reckoning. Of course, the presence of a Animal pretty much screams "Murderer."

Zinzi's Animal is Sloth. Once a journalist with a promising career, Zinzi is now a resident of Zoo City, a ghetto for the animaled. Another consequence of acquiring an Animal is some varient of paranormal power. Zinzi's gives her the ability to find lost things. She makes a living locating lost items for people and by writing scam emails. You know? The emails that claim to be from a orphan in Africa who is heir to a vast fortune, some of which is yours if you just send your banking information? Her already upturned life gets crazier when one of her clients is murdered. Soon after she is hired by a music producer to find a missing teen singer. The story then slowly progresses from a missing person's case to hunt for a serial killer.

My one complaint is that Zoo City felt like two stories. The missing persons case took up most of the novel, with the emphasis on the murders coming late (maybe a little too late) in the story, the pacing picking up at that point. The initial pacing is a bit meandering, almost leisurely. The thing is, if the setting hadn't been so interesting and unusual, and the author's voice so strong, this could have been a DNF. Instead, it was a great read. Gritty, at time violent, fantastical and yet very grounded in reality.

The story does leave a number of things unexplained: the exact circustances of her brother's death; what exactly is the Undertow, etc. Oddly, I liked the sense of mystery and the absence of tons of exposition. But some readers probably will find the lack of explanations unsatisfactory.

*For the record, I like vampires. I like some of the tropes in urban fantasy. But it does seem that UF heroines, lately, are all essentially the same character, popped out of the same mold, painted slightly different colors. Zinzi December stands out because her angst doesn't feel manufactured, her attitude a genuine reaction to real life hardship.

4.5 stars