So, I was reading 419, which was all about 419 scams, and was very unimpressed. It wasn't perceptive, it didn't grab me, and the characters all seemed flat. Move your gaze a week or so, and I start reading this urban fantasy set in Johannesburg, and although 419 scams are only a very small part of what this book is about, the small space they occupied in this book was far more interesting and trenchant than the entire other book on the matter.
And, for that matter, Zoo City, is just chock-full of ideas, and I love fantasies that are that fresh and innovative and imaginative. This book is a little bit mystery, a lot desperation, an exploration of a new type of divide between humans, and the society it creates when you can read someone's crimes on their shoulder.
Well, one crime, anyway. If you're responsible for someone's death, an animal appears. And a magic is unlocked. This varies greatly by person, but the mere stigma of being "animalled" is great, and a ghetto springs up to house them, after they've gotten out of jail. The wider society despises them all equally, even if their animals were acquired in an act of self-defense. No one quite knows why the animals started to appear, and the theories advanced in snippets range from scientific to theological. What is known is what happens if your animal is killed, and it's not pretty.
The main character, Zinzi, has a sloth. And an ability to find lost things, seeing them connected to their owners and able to track them down and return them. This doesn't entirely pay the bills, so she runs 419 scams in her spare time, trying to get out of the debt she racked up in her former life when she was a journalist and a junkie. She gets wrapped up in the death of an old woman, and the disappearance of a young pop idol, paid very good money to track her down before she turns up with an animal of her own, thus killing her fledgling career.
The world of this Johannesburg is dingy, flashy, opulent, dirt-poor, full of divides and separations. The city is fascinating, and I very much enjoyed the urban fantasy take on this place. But more than that, I enjoyed Zinzi and Sloth. Zinzi is far from a virtuous character, although she is nonetheless sympathetic. Her animal was acquired more through negligence than intent, and Sloth is truly endearing - we all know what a weakness I have for fictional animals. Watching the two of them try not to be sucked into the undertow, or worse, The Undertow, was always an excellent experience.
This is very solid urban fantasy, and the world Beukes creates is just so full of ideas and their exploration that I am very much looking forward to future ventures into the stories she creates.