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Zoo City

Zinzi December carries a sloth on her back. He is a mark of what she has done wrong. In an alternate Johannesburg, the animalled, or β€œzoos”, live as outcasts, surviving as best they can in inner city slums. With Zinzi’s animal she got a gift, the ability to find lost things. She doesn’t find lost people until one day she breaks her own rule and gets drawn into the shady underbelly of the local music scene.

Having chosen Zoo City as the first read in my Sci-Fi: Not Just For Stormtroopers challenge, I was slightly concerned at the mention of magic in the first few pages. Zoo City is a hard one to categorise, it’s fantasy with a science fiction mindset and a noir plot. Fantasy never really tries to explain the whys behind supernatural creatures and at least here, in Zinzi’s world, there have been attempts from scientists to work out what’s going on. Some of this is explained through faux extracts, articles and even a section that looks suspiciously like an Amazon product page complete with a range of customer reviews.

The mashavi, or magic, is based on a Zimbabwe myth of wandering spirits, the mashave, however it becomes a sign of guilt for the zoos. They can be singled out easily, persecuted beyond their original crimes and given no second chance to make their life good. This echoes the perceptions people have of ex-cons in our world.

Africa is a continent with many social problems and Zoo City cleverly manages to weave them into one story without treading on any toes. That’s the joy of speculative fiction, it can handle controversial and terrifying subject matters from an angle that makes an enjoyable read but also gives you pause for thought.

On a lighter note, I loved Sloth. Don’t be mistaken in thinking these are talking animals. They are pretty normal except for being linked to their humans and they communicate in normal animal ways. Yet Sloth is a fully formed character, at times being Zinzi’s conscience, even if it is self preservation behind it. I kinda want a sloth myself!

Maybe it was a good first choice after all, it might have just taught us that genres aren’t constraints and you should try not to judge a book by its genre!

As this is the group read, I’ve added some thoughts that can be considered spoilers. You can view these by clicking the button below.

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  1. Blood Rose Books

    Hmmm….this sounds really interesting. I also often shy away from sci-fi books due to the ever present storm troopers as I often get lost in all the futuristic technology terminology. I like that this has a noir feel to this. I will have to keep my eyes open for it.

  2. As the Crowe Flies and Reads

    I am not familiar with this title or author, but it sounds so very intriguing. I've not read any African speculative fiction.

  3. KarenSi

    Great review. I liked the way social and political problems were shown in the book too. I loved the setting. It was perfect for the story. I also loved Sloth. I felt a little sorry for all these animals who were a sign of shame to a lot of the zoos.

  4. redhead

    I read Zoo City about a year ago and LOVED it. Zinzi is in a crappy situation and she has to do the best she can. I loved the "journalism" bits inbetween the chapters that talked about the animaled and the hypotheses and possible explanations. Zoo City is an all around great read!

  5. Bob @ The Guilded Earlobe

    I personally loved how she used things like product and movie reviews to build her world instead of a whole lot of exposition, which sadly happens too often in scifi.

    I have Lauren Beukes Moxyland sitting on my To Be Listened To pile. I'm thinking of moving it up and getting to it sometime this month.

  6. Fence

    Spoilers below!!

    "Another point related to Odi is the idea that the animals are a representation of guilt. I don't know if I missed what he had meant to have done but he didn't strike me as the sort of person to feel guilt."

    I'm not sure if they represent guilt to everyone though, or at least, not the guilt they themselves feel. I guess he murdered that first singer (I can't remember her name), I think that the animals show up only after you murder someone, but you don't have to feel guilt over it. That "nasty" junkie kid who chopped off bits of his own animal didn't seem to exhibit many signs of a guilty conscience either…

    I'll have to check out her Moxyland too.

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