I read this a couple of weeks ago now; it is, alas, a victim of the Sabriel review pileup. I shall do my best to do it justice, however, as it was an extremely good book (if very odd).
The book is a crime-mystery novel, but one set in a time after an unexplained event left a section of the world’s populace in possession of certain powers (details largely unknown). What’s interesting is that these powers come a) with an animal associate, whose absence physically pains the human to whom they are attached and b) after a crime, or possibly just an event causing a large quantity of guilt. Those with powers (referred to as “zoos” or “animalled”) are, at least in South Africa where the book is set, ostracised and barely tolerated, but also a significant portion of the community. They must also live with fear of the “undertow”, a mysterious force which takes animalled humans if their associated animal is killed. The book follows an animalled woman from Johannesburg, Zinzi December, whose power is the ability to sense and locate lost things, as she tries to find a missing girl.
Having those with powers be an repressed sub-class is hardly a unique choice, but it works very well in the South African setting. Hardly surprisingly, really. It works especially well when set in Johannesburg. I’ve not been there myself, but South African family members strongly suggest to me that “crimey” might be a good word to describe it. Zinzi is a squatter, a fraudster and a generally not-all-that-nice person, and so she fits what pre-conception I have of Jo’burg, at least. I mean, that’s not all there is to her character, and she gets a hell of a lot of complex and rewarding development, but at the start of the book, it’s interesting to have such a… low-moralled character in a city whose reputation is somewhat tarnished. I’ll admit, it’s also nice to read something not set in the UK/America/generic medieval-esque fantasy world. It’s simultaneously familiar and alien, at least to the non-South African reader like me.
Personally, I found much more interest in Zinzi’s growth and development than in the plot itself, but that doesn’t mean the plot isn’t worthwhile. It’s very much a crime drama book that just happens to be set in a fantasy-ish world, but unlike The City and the City, I actually enjoy that aspect of it here. It puts the fantasy into the background and just makes it part of the world building and colour, rather than being too obsessed with the coolness of the idea. The setting does get explored, however, in the form of mini-chapters of pseudo-factual (newspaper style etc.) accounts of various zoos and elements of their lives. It’s a tactic I’ve seen used well before (see Johannes Cabal) but it is particularly effective here, both in terms of setting the fantasy nature into reality, and because the mini-chapters are, for the most part, journalistic, and journalism is a strong theme within the narrative.
For all that Zinzi gets some excellent development, however, the same cannot be said for a lot of the supporting cast. This is the thing which, for me, really lets the novel down. Zinzi is brilliant. She’s got a lot of depth, and a great amount of thought has evidently been put into making her a complex and difficult character. Everyone else is quite shallow and empty (ok except the love interest, he’s pretty good too), especially the baddies. They are quite unashamedly and uncomplicatedly nasty, and rather than gaining depth as the story goes on, they lose it, becoming more and more caricaturedly bad. Which is a bit annoying. It doesn’t spoil the book exactly, but it is the one thing I really think could have been done better.
Oh it is also seriously a not-happy book. But in a good way, so that’s alright.
I very much look forward to reading more of Beukes’ work, and would strongly encourage you to join me. It is properly, properly good.