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Zoo City

Zoo City - Lauren Beukes One of the things I loved the most about Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series was his rather brilliant twist on the concept of a witch's familiar: that in that world, each person's soul manifests as a companion animal that is their other half. It's not only because it's a cool idea; it also is an interesting reflection of our ongoing weird relationship with nature -- the connection we feel to the creatures of the earth, though most of us live far removed from it in cities and suburbs. And, you know, the idea of a little talking cat following me around is just fun. Provided, of course, you get a good animal like a cat, since you can't pick. According to the online daemon matcher they had on the Golden Compass movie website before it came out and failed, I would get a spider. I would not appreciate that. Other animals I would be happy with: Penguin. Welsh Corgie. Red-eyed Tree Frog. Lauren Beukes' Zoo City has a similar conceit, which is why I wanted to read it even though I'm not typically drawn to Urban Fantasy as a genre. Check it out: Set in 2011, in a world that is basically our own, except sometime around the mid-Aughts, a strange plague descended upon humanity -- suddenly, people who commit murder (or are even responsible for a death through indirect means) find themselves marked for all the world to see by the sudden appearance of their own companion animals. I imagine this would make criminal cases really easy to prosecute ("Can you point out the perpetrator?" "Yes, that's him there, with the Red Panda in his lap.") They aren't quite the talking creatures of Pullman, but they do seem smarter than the average bear (no, really, someone gets a bear), and they do become your devoted friend for life.Other than the whole "everyone knows you killed someone and therefore shuns you and you have to live in slums like the titular, crime-ridden Zoo City" angle, this doesn't sound that bad to me. i think a companion animal would be really fun! Did I mention they also grant their bearers useful magical powers? Hmmm, but then there is this downside where if your animal dies before you do, a black cloud of existential dread or something floats by to drag you directly to hell. So, also a negative.So as you can probably tell, this is potentially a pretty dorky premise, but Beukes pulls it off with aplomb thanks to a strong central character, a well-chosen setting and creative world-building that pieces out an explanation for the funky backstory through occasional non-plot chapters consisting of emails, news articles, and even an IMDb page for a documentary on "Animalism" (complete with a nice nod to Pullman: "If you enjoyed this, you'll like Steering by the Golden Compass: Pullman's fantasy in the context of the ontological shift;" I see what you did there, Beukes). Zinzi is a former journalist (and junkie) who lives in the slums of Zoo City, shunned because of her Sloth (which she has because of her Dark Past that is revealed slowly, and I must say the way the animals are doled out in this world seems slightly unfair at times). She's deep in debt to her former dealer and scrapes a living drawing in marks for 419 email scams (I told you it was just like our world) and using her special magical ability: finding lost things. Zinzi is a fun narrator -- clearly damaged, a sarcastic smartass hip to pop culture (she references lolcats! I'm going to need a shelf!) and highly capable on the job. Plus her companion animal is a sloth, so you know she's good people. Um, except for the murdery past.The plot is ever-so-slightly incidental, as it mostly exists in order to provide a method to reveal the range of ways in which the phenomenon of Animalism (aka Acquired Aposymbiotic Familiarism) has changed what is otherwise clearly our world (I mean, they have email scams and Britney Spears, so it's gotta be us). That's not to say it isn't an interesting mystery: Zinzi is roped into tracking down the missing half of a Bieber-eqsue pop group; not surprisingly, murder, mayhem, and a nefarious record producer are involved. For a while, it almost feels like it could be YA, but there's a violent undercurrent that never really goes away; Beukes doesn't want you to forget that our likeable heroine has a Sloth friend for a reason, and that it is a very bad reason. I may have mentioned that the climax is intense; it's not just gory but profoundly sad, and I don't want to tread into spoilers but the unspoken themes that form the backbone of the entire thing, about the burdens carried by people who have done bad things -- very very bad things, yes -- but have to learn to go on living in a society that doesn't want them around, are surprisingly affecting for a book with a cartoon sloth on the cover.