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Literature / Zoo City

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Zoo City, by South African author Lauren Beukes, is a wide spanning Urban Fantasy set in a world of Grey-and-Gray Morality, set in an Alternate Universe Neo-Africa where guilt literally manifests itself as an animal, bound to individuals. The story follows one Zinzi December as she gets caught in an intricate mystery in Johannesburg, while struggling with her own past and guilt in the form of the Sloth that adorns her back.

Tropes in this work:

  • The Atoner: Ideally, anyone with an animal tries to atone and live with their guilt, but quite a few just use their newfound super powers to continue their ways.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Benoit ends up in the hospital with limited chances to regain his health, Song and Sbu are murdered, Zinzi still owes hundreds of thousands in debt to the Company, and the Marabou and Maltese escape easily.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: Zinzi is a scam artist, ex-addict, and killed her brother. She's the protagonist by virtue of the fact that nearly everyone else in the story is worse.
  • Bond Creatures: All zoos have an animal, which they seem to gain by committing some sort of crime. They need to keep their animal close or suffer serious panic attacks and pain, and if the animal dies they are taken by the Undertow.
  • Brainwashed and Crazy: Sbu gets so hopped up on drugs that he kills Song in a frenzy. He barely has time for a moment of My God, What Have I Done? before the Marabou kills him.
  • Can't Live Without You: If a zoo's animal dies they are torn apart by the Undertow. Judging by how much people who are taken by it scream, it's very painful.
  • Cursed with Awesome: Gaining an animal. While it may be a manifestation of guilt for killing someone, you get superpowers!
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The Sparrow woman and homeless man end up being very important.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Everyone. Benoit probably takes the cake though.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Zinzi's narration and dialogue just loves to snark. She drops it in moments of seriousness and as the novel reaches the climax.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Zinzi hits it pretty hard when Benoit finds her work for the Company but rebounds quickly.
  • Doing in the Scientist: Scientists attempt to explain the Undertow and aposymbionts. Their explanations are Techno Babble, especially given the actual muti Zinzi experiences partway through the novel makes a lot more sense. And nobody offers any explanation for literal ghosts sending Zinzi messages to lead her to their killer.
  • Fantastic Racism: Zoos get a rough treatment around the world. In China they're killed on sight, in many countries they're rounded up and imprisoned for no reason, and even in the West, they're given full body invasive scans and are treated as second class citizens. South Africa, despite the treatment of zoos being shitty, is very nearly the only place that treats them with any rights at all.
    • Also applies between zoos, as incarcerated prisoners with weaker animals are targeted for abuse by those with formidable ones, regardless of the inmates' own physical prowess.
  • Functional Magic: Combines Inherent Gift with a twist on Theurgy and Force Magic. "Zoos" get their powers from their Animals which are a form of familiar. The twist is that they didn't make any conscious deal to get their Animals, they were bestowed on the zoos for committing violent crimes by a mysterious force called the Undertow. There are also shamans who receive visions through Alchemy.
  • It's All My Fault: How you get an animal. Zinzi specifically got hers because she killed her brother, even though she did not literally pull the trigger.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Gio's "expose" on Zoo sex lead Zinzi to redirect her 419 clients to him. He ends up getting arrested for it.
  • Noodle Incident: How exactly Thando died is never clarified, as Zinzi was hurt by the same bullet as him, so she couldn't have fired the gun.
  • Magitek: Spirits and gods and shavi woven together with modern technology. There's mention given to hacking phones magically and ghosts send Zinzi emails.
  • Man Behind the Man: Odi Huron behind the Maltese and Marabou, but he's just a client of them.
  • Manipulative Bastard: D'Nice is described by Zinzi as a "serotonin vampire", but the Maltese takes the cake..
  • Mass Super-Empowering Event: People first started gaining animals sometime in the 1980s or 1990s and it is now a worldwide phenomenon.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Zinzi about Thando's death, Sbu briefly after he realizes he murdered Song in a frenzy.
  • Never Found the Body: Zinzi lampshades this while discussing Song's disappearance.
    "You know they never found her body? She could still be out there."
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Odi Huron raped pretty much every female star he'd had.
  • The Reveal: After hitting her Despair Event Horizon, Zinzi finally pieces everything together and finds out Odi Huron has been running a Serial Killer ploy to rid himself of his Crocodile.
  • Serial Killer: The Marabou specifically, but the Maltese helps.
  • Shout-Out: There's a wink to the fact that the setting includes animal familiars like The Golden Compass in a faux-Amazon review.
    • Sbu has a Dalek figure on his shelf.
  • Spoiled Brat: Arno, Sbu, and Songweza are all pretty spoiled, though Des, being older, isn't as important. Nevertheless they're shown to be innocent and naive and still good natured despite that. Zinzi retches when she finds Arno's corpse and Sbu and Song's double murder in the climax is terrifying.
    • Zinzi herself used to be quite the brat.
  • The Sociopath: Zinzi gets pretty creeped out by the Maltese's lack of any lost things. The only other person she's seen with that threw herself down an elevator shaft shortly thereafter.
  • Superpower Lottery: Zinzi's ability is kind of average as far as shavi go, but Benoit's Power Nullifier is very potent, as is the Maltese's Amplifier Artifact abilities.
    • Most animals are small, often scavengers or prey species, but some individuals have large apex predators.
    • Two extremely potent abilities are described only by periphery characters, Baiyat (the Afgahnistani warlord who was the first public case) and an unnamed prisoner with a Butterfly got some sort way to remotely torture people and waking up as someone else in the world whenever he goes to sleep respectively.
  • Straight Gay: Arno.
  • Urban Fantasy: Set in the grimest possible interpretation of this.