I’m an all or nothing kind of reader. If after fifty pages a book doesn’t hook me, it gets put down and usually not picked up again for a long while, but if it hooks me I’ll read it cover to cover in twenty-four hours or less. That was very much the case with Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City. I got the book as part of a humble bundle – my first bundle, actually, and it’s easily one of my favourite books of all time. You may recognize the name, her first novel is on my cyberpunk reading list. Beukes’s sophomore novel is best described as cyberpunk urban fantasy, which is an ingenious blending of genres.
The story is set in a Johannesburg where anyone who does anything that comes with a serious amount of guilt is saddled with a symbiotic animal familiar. It’s impossible to be separated from this familiar and any harm that comes to it also comes to its host. This, obviously, poses a lot of complications for the “animalled”. And this is the position we find protagonist, Zinzi December, who is saddled with a sloth on her back (often literally) and an unusual gift for finding the unfindable.
While on the surface, Zoo City is about one woman’s struggles, it tells a broader story of the ways that disadvantage stacks and stacks to constrict a person until even the simple dream of escaping the city is seemingly unattainable. This isn’t to say that Zoo City is soul-crushingly depressing because it isn’t by any stretch. We’re taken on an exhilarating ride through Johannesburg as Zinzi makes desperate decision after desperate decision as she struggles to get out of dept and out from under the weight of her decisions.
Beukes’s prose will carry you effortlessly from page to page putting you in danger of staying up the entire night reading (like I did). The setting is incredibly real and familiar and yet it very much reminded me of William Gibson’s version of Chiba in Neuromancer. It isn’t set in the future, there aren’t mercenary cyborgs either, but it’s got that dystopian vibe that is the hallmark of cyberpunk. And above all else Zinzi December is this amazingly strong and endearing woman that you can’t help but root for.
If this isn’t on your list already, go fix that! It’s amazingly imaginative and captivating. Just talking about it makes me want to go back and read it again. Yeah… I’m gonna go do that.