Zoo City: hard-boiled South African urban fantasy makes murder out of magic

South African writer Lauren Beukes's second novel Zoo City, is a remarkable, gritty, noir urban fantasy set in a Johannesburg where criminals and sinners are marked out by animal familiars that mysteriously appear after the commission of a great evil and attach themselves for life. When your animal dies, you are taken by The Undertow, a malevolent black hole in space that arrives within moments of your animal's death and reduces you to ash. But being animalled isn't all bad: the animalled get magical powers, randomly assigned by whatever fate grants you your familiar.

The protagonist of Zoo City is Zinzi December, former journalist, former junkie, former fratracide, now living in Zoo City, a squatter slum filled with the animalled. Zinzi's magic power is the ability to locate lost objects, and her dark secret is that she pays back the crime syndicate that bought out her dope-debt by running 419 scams. This is more awful, even, than the fact that she accidentally got her brother killed, and she doesn't share the secret with anyone — not even with her horribly burned refugee boyfriend.

Zoo City follows a fairly traditional (not to say predictable) noir plot: Zinzi takes a minor job finding a lost ring for a rich lady, but the lady is murdered as she is on her way to return the job and get paid, throwing suspicion on her. A mysterious animalled pair on the site offers her a job finding a missing person — a rising young pop-star who's vanished after a fight with her producer — and Zinzi takes it against her better judgment. She needs the money to pay off the crime syndicate, who are pushing her deeper into the 419 scams.

But Zinzi's new job is anything but straightforward, and the story twists and turns as the true nature of the millionaire power-broker producer comes to light, and we learn about the dark side of magic, the animalled, and murder. The story writhes back and forth like the best noirs, Chandleresque, but filled with unknowable magic and set in an ultra-gritty Jo-burg that makes District 9 look like a holiday camp.

Zoo City is a fabulous outing from an extremely promising writer. Beukes's first novel, Moxyland, was a dystopian cyberpunk thriller that never quite jelled for me, despite moments of real brilliance. But I had no such reservations about Zoo City, which has so much fabulous wordplay, imaginative settings and scenarios, and such a dark and cynical heart that I was totally riveted by it.

Zoo City