Noir sf has become quite the trend in the last few years, with recent Hugo winners Yiddish Policeman’s Union and The City & The City doing rather classic versions of the genre in recent years, among others. It makes a lot of sense, as the genre has always been about introducing a new world – whether it’s the criminal underworld of LA or San Francisco in the 1940s or a fictional bifurcated city in Eastern Europe, these gritty stories let the reader explore a place they’re probably not familiar with in a manner that’s almost anthropological. We get to learn the laws, the leadership structure, probably a bit of history, and the social mores, all at their rawest. Beukes novel fits nicely into this emerging trend, and, at least as far as North American readers like myself are concerned, it gets to do double duty. It introduces us to the criminal underworld of modern South Africa, with its violent tsotsis, refugees from horrific African wars from Rwanda to Congo, and 419 scams. But, it also gives us a fantasy element of animal familiars that attach themselves to certain people and grant magic powers (African myth and magic lurks behind most of these ideas). In Johannesburg, these people have been segregated into a slum called “Zoo City.”
Zinzi December is “animaled” with a sloth, and she’s gained the power to find things that people have lost, which she uses to do cheap detective work in Zoo City. She used to be a journalist, but drug addiction put her into a life of crime, and landed her in jail then in Zoo City. She still works email scams to pay off some of her debts. Meanwhile, her refugee boyfriend learns and reveals some things about his own past that begin to disrupt Zinzi’s life. In an effort to work her way back into her former career, she takes a bigger case involving a pair of young pop stars that also brings her into contact with a string of murdered "zoos." These plots begin to intertwine as the usual gritty, ultraviolent noir hijinks ensue.
There’s a lot to like about this novel. Beukes’s writing is strong, Zinzi is a very compelling character, and the sociological details she’s invented for the zoos are well-thought out and compelling. She’s done exactly the sort of world-building that I want from a fantasy novel. Her portrait of Johannesburg is also quite rich, and I think I would’ve enjoyed this novel almost as much without the fantasy elements. On the other hand, I did think the fantasy elements were underplayed at times. The novel goes for long periods in which the animals aren’t much of an issue, and the pop star storyline especially felt off topic for most of its run. Beukes has a lot more she can do with this concept, and I almost wondered near the end if she was holding material back for a sequel. Some of the noir stuff can get a bit generic as well. In the end, I’m not sure the novel is as unique as its concept and world promise. It’s certainly a worthwhile urban fantasy read though, and at the least, it shows how much can be done with the sub-genre without resorting to vampires and werewolves.