"Zinzi December has a Sloth on her back, a dirty 419 scam habit, and a talent for finding lost things. But when a little old lady turns up dead and the cops confiscate her last paycheck, she's forced to take on her least favourite kind of job - missing persons."
Who here remembers urban fantasy? Hands up.
No, no, no. Those of you waving your arms in the air at the thought of some forbidden affair between a tough female protagonist and a gentleman of the night, think again. Of late, there's been a largely regrettable insurgence of such fiction: a counter-culture of wish-fulfillment fiction bearing transparent elements of the fantastic and set against one urban environ or another has arisen - if only to be subsumed itself by the zeitgeist. Paranormal romance by any other name (the vast majority of which smells as sour as the likes of Laurell K. Hamilton and Stephanie Meyer have taught us to expect) has thoroughly co-opted urban fantasy in recent years, and the genre, as is, bears only a trifling resemblance to the mature and sophisticated fiction it once espoused. In short, an overabundance of Twilight wannabes and screeds of sexy vampires have given urban fantasy a bad name. With Zoo City, South African author Lauren Beukes is taking it back.
Meet Zinzi December. Animalled after murdering her own brother, Zinzi serves out her penance in a district of Johannesburg where "Zoos" such as she and sometime-significant other Benoit can live in relative peace, zoned off as they are from the rest of the world. With a Sloth slung over her shoulder, an externalisation of her fratricidal guilt and a constant reminder of her crime, life isn't easy for Zinzi. Against her better judgment, she works as a 419 scam artist in order to repay the staggering debt she has accumulated thanks to a past-tense drug addiction, making ends meet in the erstwhile by "finding lost things" with the supernatural talent she acquired as a by-product of being animalled. Only ever things, though - never people. But Zinzi's fallen on hard times. When one of her clients ends up mercilessly slaughtered and an opportunity to pay off her crippling debt once and for all arises, she puts her principles to the side and sets about her unusual charge: the rooting out of a missing Afropop starlet.
You simply wouldn't credit that Zoo City is only Lauren Beukes' second novel. She doesn't put a foot wrong for the duration. With endless verve and a cynical wit, she carries off a concept so audacious as to beggar belief, an inspired riff on the daemons of His Dark Materials which has humanity reevaluating its roots in the aftermath of the Zoo Plague, or AAF (Acquired Aposymbiotic Familiarism). "It's a fragile state - the world as we know it," Beukes warns us. "All it takes is one Afghan warlord to show up with a Penguin and a bulletproof vest, and everything science and religion thought they know goes right out of the window." Relevant and revelatory, the ghettoisation of the Zoos in the pockmarked and unrelentingly urban landscape of Johannesburg also recalls the quandary of the slumdog prawns of District 9, yet Beukes confers on the animalled of her novel a murky sense of depth Neill Bloemkamp could only imply.
The Zoos are tragic creatures, one and all; some hateful, others haunted - Zinzi most of all. A recovering journalist, as Beukes has it, and "master builder in the current affairs sympathy scam," Zinzi is an embittered anti-heroine living, as all Zoos do, in fear of the Undertow, an unknowable terror which suffuses the fringes of her existence. She has, of course, more immediate concerns, foremost amongst them the everyday dangers of life in a city bereft of (conventional) order. Singularly the most disturbing of all her encounters in Zoo City, short perhaps its truly gruesome dénouement, is with a gang of junkie tunnel rats who have stolen her phone. Zinzi has fallen so far, yet she still has her pride, and so she makes the mistake of confronting them. Realising her mistake, she runs; they tear through the sewers after her with a rusty, sharpened screwdriver and such unadulterated hate that we see it is the city, in as much as the Zoos, that she need fear.
Zinzi is not so easily dissuaded. She washes the stink of the sewer off her and immediately follows up on her next lead: could Songweza, the absent half of Afropop sensation iJusi, have taken up with a burly bouncer working the doors of Counter Revolutionary? Zinzi is a strong female protagonist in every sense; and she is strong in the face of violent crime, betrayal and a city that seems to want her dead - not just a bit downtrodden until she attracts the attention of a devilishly handsome werewolf, as in the mode of many so-called "urban fantasy" narratives. Her Sloth, meanwhile, is more than a glorified pet: it has its own personality, its own desires - often at odds with Zinzi's - and yet it is a part of her that she must come to terms with, however much she despises what Sloth recalls, for the Undertow comes for all those who are separated from their animal companions.
Zoo City is lean and mean urban fantasy in the best and most respectable sense of the thing. In Zinzi Beukes gives us a truly compelling character: strong, centered, flawed just so and brilliantly intertwined with her world. In the titular district of Johannesburg, the South African author offers up an environment so desperate and evocative it puts innumerable paint-by-numbers fantasylands to shame. Hard-bitten, deliciously vitriolic and utterly engaged, both with the city and what the city means to those who call it home - for want, one intimates, of anywhere else to - Zoo City is, in short, the best thing to happen to urban fantasy in years.