Zoo City – Lauren Beukes

I’ve reviewed this before here, so I won’t say much. I don’t much disagree with what I said the first time, though I think my views are a touch more emphatic, since they’ve come up against disagreement. It’s one of those book where I didn’t realise how much I really loved it until someone told me they thought one aspect or another of it was badly done. Then suddenly SURGE OF CARING. Because I am very strongly of the opinion that this book is an excellent book, but more important than that, whether you like it or not, I think it is very clear that this book has been skilfully written. And I suppose that’s always the hill I’m willing to die on… people can have opinions that differ than mine – of the “I like this/I don’t like that” flavour – but as soon as they start treating it like something is objectively bad… nope.

Not that I’ve spoken to anyone who hated or vilified this book anywhere near that much. It just struck me as interesting how minor criticism prodded my opinions right in the soft spot I didn’t know they had.

What I most have to add on my previous post is how much I love the world of this book. In the last few years I’ve read some more urban fantasy, and I think enough of it to have some strong opinions on what I think works and doesn’t… this definitely falling into the former category. Beukes has done what the best of them do and made the unreal feel astonishingly grounded and plausible. Most of that is achieved by situating it firmly into a real city… which in most cases is London but here… her picture of Johannesburg, to my very little knowledge, feels utterly plausible and entirely… “real” is the wrong word. It’s not ethereal or narrative-powered, like so many novels. It feels like her book could actually take a real, unexpected turn, because the people in it are actual people, behaving in real ways, not bound by the strictures of “well now is the bit where the hero does this”. But they obviously are. There are points I can pick where that’s definitely true. But her skill is in building us a world of magic that feels not only real in the sense of the magic being plausible, but real in the sense of the actions and choices of the people in it feeling totally real. It’s very much the shining light of what she does, for me.

Besides that, she remains just an excellent writer of characters. I still love Zinzi’s character arc, and the sympathy tinged with distaste we get for her way of life and her choices. She’s done bad things, and we don’t excuse them, but we can’t help but sympathise with the person she is now, and want her to pull herself out of her post-addiction, post-prison hole, and start living beyond the next moment.

I also didn’t stress in my previous post how much I enjoy her prose and general construction ability. She doesn’t write like a genre-fiction writer, and for all that I love genre-fiction, here that’s a good thing. It feeds that plausibility, and manages to cover dark and awful topics without feeling like it’s being deliberately “gritty”. There’s no sense of “oh I’d best make this dark” in an almost voyeuristic way, which I’ve definitely experienced elsewhere. It’s far more matter of fact, accepting that this darkness is a day to day reality for some people in some places, whether that’s the guilt or the drugs or the crime or the poverty or the squalor, and by glorying in it, by using it as a tool to make another, cheaper point, you undermine how actually awful it is. She’s not done that, and so she’s not taken the teeth out of it. And I suppose that too is part of what pushes it into the realms of the realistic.

So, after this, I want very badly to read more urban fantasy non-London. This drives home that point very much indeed. A book drawing on a magic tradition that isn’t the same old fare you get in every London-based urban fantasy is just so refreshing, and either there should be more of it or I should be more aware of it… or both. So if anyone has any recommendations, I would be very keen to hear them.

Next up, I reread Fire and Hemlock in a whirl, because I wanted comforting nostalgia, and I hadn’t read it in forever.

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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