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Zoo City review

Zoo City Cover Lauren Beukes Angry Robot

How to enjoy book awards without having to actually write a novel

(A review of Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes)

There are three ways to gain pleasure from book awards (assuming that you are not one of the nominees yourself; if you are, congrats. Nice to see you here).

One is to have read all the books on the shortlist and therefore hold a valid opinion about which one is best. This never happens. Ever. Even the judges have to pull all-nighters skim-reading and pretend they’d read them ages ago.

Scenario Two is much more achievable: To have read at least one of the nominated books, and thus be allowed to hold forth, loudly, about how the one you bothered to buy should totally win the award in question (or, was such a pile of crap that it should never have been nominated).

Scenario Three is the nicest of all: To see a book you genuinely loved on the list, and for that book to actually win. That’s what happened to me when Zoo City won the Arthur C Clarke Award last year, and I got to feel smug and proud despite having had nothing to do with the book. You hear that? A way to feel smug and proud without having to do anything except read a book. Don’t tell me you’re not impressed by that.

Right now, with the nominee list for the 2012 Arthur C Clarke Award not yet announced, having an opinion about last year’s winner is the best you can do. So, get thee to a bookshop and swot up fast. Here are some of my favourite things about Beuke’s book.

1 The concept of being animalled. In Beuke’s world, criminals have a permanent reminder of their crime, an animal who is linked to them for life. The tether between person and animal is strong, and separation is unbearable. It’s a cool, visual conceit, and something that’s not vampires. (Or werewolves). Something original. Phew.

Now that those with a less than pristine past can be identified with just a glance, the animalled are quickly ostracised. Let’s face it, excluding people who are different is something humans have always been good at. The suburbs become gated communities, and the Zoo City of the title is slang for where the cons and their critters reside.

2 Urban grittiness. I like urban fantasy when it shows me streets that are real. Streets that have dirt and junkies on them, litter and blood. When she came out of prison with a Sloth on her shoulders, no one would rent Zinzi a place anywhere nice, and in fact she kinda liked the broken down tenement she found in the Zoo City ghetto. It was dirty, and crowded, and noisy – just like prison. The scenes in the downtown slums are easy to visualise and are always believable, uncomfortably so. The detail makes the magic and the noir elements feel very real.

3 Zinzi December. What a name, what a woman. Here’s a female lead, written by a female author, winning a SF prize in a year where everyone shouted a lot (a lot) about there being a lack of female SF authors these days. Zinzi is the kind of heroine I like – cynical, clever, with healthy disregard for authority. Her downward spiral is in the spotlight, not her love life. No, she’s not proud of what she’s done, or what she does now. And nor should she be. She stays away from the drugs these days, but is involved in some dodgy internet scams to pay the bills and has no legit alternatives to turn to instead.

4 The pop culture. Like the slums, Lauren gets this right. Remember I said there were no legit alternatives for Zinzi? Well, what if she uses her natural talent to help out some bad people, and earns enough to stop hustling for a while? People with animals also have a magical talent, a shavi, and Zinzi’s talent is finding lost things. Keys, love letters, toys, jewellery. She could find bigger stuff, yes, but she prefers to stick to the easy stuff. Less trouble that way. She advertises her services to find things people have lost, and attracts the attention of a pop mogul who’s lost his teen singer. She should know better than to get involved – the darkness surrounding the case is palpable – but the money and the armed heavies make it hard to walk away.

So she takes the job, to find a lost teen idol, a cookie-cutter cutie who is adored for her innocent image. She’s a beauty, an angel, a role model. And she needs to be found before the media discovers her disappearance and infers anything sordid. The gossip magazine culture and the fake saccharine pop stars are perfectly done, and excerpts from YouTube style web pages (complete with comments), song lyrics and tabloid columns are slipped neatly between the chapters.

Bonus Scenario Four: being able to say that none of this year’s list are as good as last year’s winner. Read this now and you still have a chance to enjoy this scenario.

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Roil by Trent Jamieson

roil cover rb

New review now up at Slacker Heroes.

Margaret nodded, and David considered her resolute expression, and the way she packed away her weaponry with an efficiency at once beautiful and terrifying. Rather like the Roil.

“We’ll make them pay. We’ll wipe the blasted earth of them. I’ll not see another city fall,” Margaret said, as though she was capable of such things, as though she might singlehandedly save the world.

The Roil is a turbulent mass of darkness, death and monsters that is steadily filling the sky, destroying civilisation and heating up the world til it’s the right temperature for full scale invasion. You know when you look up and the clouds have swarmed over that blue sky you were enjoying? You shiver, and curse the fact that you left your jacket at home. Imagine something like that, but where the clouds are full of things called Quarg Hounds or Wit Moths, and they’re going to block out the sun, kill you horribly and then swarm out of your eyes. You won’t need your jacket any more, honey.

Jamieson’s novel takes us across the land that the Roil is overtaking, following a group of people with nothing in common but the desire to survive and/or destroy the Roil. Can a drug addict, a plucky young woman and a mysterious Old Man stop the encroaching destruction?

There’s a lot to like here, though in places I wanted more. The world building is intricate, imaginative and impressive and I am sure that what we see here represents an iceberg mass that, right now, only Trent Jamieson knows about. I love the variety of people who populate this country, and the thought that’s gone into the towns they hail from. There are the cavalier Drifters who live in the sky and despise the land lubbers, the merciless Verger assassins who kill for the state, and the scary Cuttlefolk, who seem to be man, bird and insect. I was reminded more than once of China Mieville and the original detail of his Bas Lag metropolis. That’s a compliment.

But on a smaller level, scene by scene, the book would benefit from more detail. I’d like to know about the rooms these people are in, the routes they take there, what’s inside their heads. There are missed opportunities to tell us more about this world and these characters. They travels for miles and visit cities they’ve never seen before, and barely react. The writing is so sparse sometimes that it’s more like an outline or a script than fleshed out fiction, which is a shame as I’m sure there’s more to tell. Too much is held back from the reader, which may be a tactic to build tension but can verge on confusion instead.

The nasty stuff is deliciously horrid, with gore and viciousness that Jamieson should be proud of. The concept of the Roil, and the way I can so easily visualise it, makes it a magnificent monster and one I don’t expect to be easily beaten. I liked that; it’s good to read something where I can’t tell if the good guys will win or not. A lot of people will enjoy the original world building here, and might not mind the scarcity of detail which made me balk. I hope so – let me know what you think.

 

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Quick Quick Slow

feet to fast for shutter to catchI’ve not yet finished the draft I thought I’d be done with last month, but I have had some great ‘ping!’s about what this middle section needs. Insights that help change it from ‘and then, after The Beginning, they decide to go Slay The Baddies, uncovering (and solving) a Mystery in the process, which leads nicely to The End‘ to something with more substance – less of a service-station stop en route to the end, more of a village in its own right.

I wonder if I’d have got those pings if I’d hurtled through the draft at the pace I’d intended? Yes, I probably would. Going slower got my brain composting some stuff and working on some neat revelations, but had I gone faster and – crucially – worked every day, I’d have been so submerged in the story that the same revelations would have come and probably been signposted more clearly. No justification for slackening the pace, sadly, but good to know that both speeds still get me the same story.

My reading’s going much more swiftly, what a surprise, eh? I loved A Long Long Sleep, by Anna Sheehan, despite a slow start, and stayed up late to finish it. Review for the BFS to come. I was angry and disappointed by The Magician King; Fillory sounded like my kind of place til I realised that all Grossman’s strong female characters meet terrible ends (or are, like Janet, left on P.27 and never seen again). Audra at Unabridged Chick puts it well –

‘I don’t mind darker themes and I don’t mind a harder edge to my fantasy — but I want it doled out in equal part.  Sparing all the male magicians while making the women all victims is frustrating, and whatever pay out comes at the end never feels enough to make the violence okay.  It’s disappointing and frustrating and frankly, feels cheap.  

Her review is here and my review for the British Fantasy Society is linked to here.

Talking of the BFS – it’s FantasyCon this month! It’s the first one I’m attending, and I’m very excited. Thank you to Lou Morgan for writing a newbie A-Z – check it out on her blog here.

Right, must get back to The Sims – oops, no, I mean work. Honest, guv.

 

Things I’m doing this week:

Watching: Lost Girl, Season 1 on Syfy (great so far!)

Reading: Roil, by Trent Jamieson (also great so far)

Eating: punk rock vegan cookies. If they’re vegan I can eat as many as I want, right?

Listening to: Pot Kettle Black, Tilly and The Wall

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