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Washington, V.C. (aka Vamp City, aka V.C.) is a sunless city created by a sorcerer back in 1870. In structure, it is a duplicate of Washington, D. C., with most of the same streets and buildings, but looking like they did back in the 19th century just after the Civil War. Vamp City is a shambling wreck of a place, with broken-down buildings that the vamps are uninterested in keeping up. V.C. is home to about 400 vampires who are divided among nine kovenas (similar to clans). Each kovena lives within its own stronghold, existing apart from and in opposition to the other kovenas. This world also has werewolves and other monsters, but we don't see much of them in book 1.
Vamp City's biggest problem is that the magic that holds it together is breaking down, allowing beams of sunlight to penetrate more and more frequently. That sunlight brings instantaneous death to any vampire it hits, so the vamps are desperate to find a sorcerer who can renew the magic that keeps their city alive. Phineas Blackstone, the sorcerer who created the city, used his magic to create a trap for vampires. After they all moved into V.C., he withdrew his magic and the city (and the vampires) began to die.
Here, a vampire describes V.C.: "The vampires wanted a large dark city...so Phineas Blackstone rode to nearly the center of the ten-mile square that was originally D.C. to perform his magic. The city he created extends out approximately three miles in every direction from that spot. The Boundary Circle is where the vamps enter and exit the dark city...or did when the magic was intact. Most of the kovenas have strongholds near the Boundary. The unclaimed land around the kovenas we call the Nod. The large, unclaimed center, the Crux. It's a dangerous place, home to the wolves and Rippers and anyone else who longs to stay away from the kovenas and has the fortitude to survive." (p. 226)
As one vampire explains, V.C."is the perfect place for vampires....No sun, no need to hide for fear of detection by the far more numerous human race. Vamp City was promoted as a utopia....Where else can vampires hold horse races and soccer matches, hunts and other games at any time, day or night, free to use our full range of abilities, free to feed on the humans in our midst without fear of reprisal or discovery? Without fear of the sun?" (p. 130)
Some vampires still have enough power to travel back and forth between the real Washington, D.C. and Vamp City, but that number is dwindling. In this world, vamps have varying needs. Some feed on fear, others on pain or pleasure, but they all need human blood to thrive. These vamps are brutal, degenerate perverts who view all humans as prey and entertainment. Most humans who are dragged into Vamp City die, but those who live in V.C. long enough eventually become Slavas, identified by their glowing hair. Slavas are immortal, and they live their lives either working for or entertaining the vamps—being sucked dry of blood while being tortured during public "banquets" for the benefit of the pain-sucking and fear-eating vamps. Food for the human slaves of V.C. comes from Traders, who move back and forth between V.C. and D.C. The Traders often grab humans from D.C. to sell as slaves to the V.C. vamps.
The series heroine is Quinn Lennox, a young human woman, who lives with her half-brother, Zack, in a Washington, D.C. apartment near George Washington (GW) University. Quinn is a lab technician at the National Institutes of Health, and her brother is a GW student and a computer geek. Quinn never knew her mother, who died when she was quite young. When Quinn's father remarried, her new step-mother made life miserable for Quinn. The only good part of Quinn's life after that was her loving relationship with Zack. Quinn has always been considered a bit of a freak. She once threw her step-mother across a room without using her hands, and was punished severely for that. The step-mother always called Quinn's real mother "that witch," but Quinn never thought that she was serious—until now, that is.
The series is very violent, and the vampires are all sadistic monsters, even Arturo, who is supposed to be the hero. The vampires brutalize all humans—whipping, beating, burning, raping, and/or beheading anyone who does anything at all that is disagreeable to them, or if they're in need of some fear or pain to feed from, or just because... The humans in V.C. don't stand a chance against their vampire masters. They are all doomed to either a quick but painful death or an immortal life filled with misery and brutalization.
Click HERE to go to a page on the author's web site entitled "Welcome to Vamp City," which includes a description of V.C. and fun facts about D.C. in 1870. Click HERE to read the author's explanation of how she came up with the V.C. world. Click HERE to read the first 3 1/2 chapters (59 pages) of the book. Check out pages 35-39 for Quinn's first gut-wrenching encounter with Arturo. If that scene makes you flinch, you need to know that her situation (and her brother's) only gets worse.
BOOK 1: A Blood Seduction
Lately, Quinn has been seeing Shimmers—glowing rainbow bands of light that change the color of her clothing when she walks through them. Sometimes, when she looks out of her apartment window, she sees crumbling, old-fashioned row houses and horse-drawn carriages instead of modern buildings and automobiles. She doesn't know what to make of all this, but she's very worried.
When Zack's girlfriend, Lily, disappears on her way to meet him, Zack and Quinn search for her, but get sucked into Vamp City instead. They are immediately set upon by hungry vampires, and Zack is dragged away into brutal slavery. But Quinn is rescued by a handsome, 600-year-old vamp named Arturo Mazza who recognizes almost immediately that Quinn is a sorcerer who can save V.C. by renewing its magic. Arturo (whose nickname is Snake) convinces Quinn that he will help her find her brother, but instead turns her over to his cruel and heartless master, Cristoff. The story follows Quinn as she desperately tries to escape her captivity and find and rescue Zack while warding off Arturo's never-ending sexual advances, even though she finds herself falling under his spell. Arturo, by the way, has one unlikely (silly) human trait: he's crazy about SweetTarts.
Reading this story is not a pleasant or enjoyable experience, and although the series been labeled as a romance, it's closer to horror than to any other genre. The frequent scenes of vampire violence are dark and sadistic. In Arturo's first scene with Quinn, he sexually abuses her (not quite rape, but the next thing to it) and lies to her continually. She knows deep down that Arturo can't be trusted (he keeps telling her that), but she keeps falling for his lies—not the smartest heroine in paranormal fiction. Quinn has a number of TSTL moments in which she underestimates the vamps and overestimates her own abilities. She is essentially a passive female who must constantly be rescued by stronger males. Arturo comes across as pragmatic and heartless, warning Quinn over and over again that his allegiance is to Cristoff, and that he will always choose Cristoff over anyone else. Quinn, somehow, keeps forgetting this and sees goodness in Arturo that just isn't there. Even after Arturo manhandles her, lies to her, betrays her, and passes her off to Cristoff, all it takes is a kind word or one soapy shower duet for Quinn to melt into Arturo's sexy vampire arms.
I can't say that I enjoyed this book. The torture scenes and the male domination were way too disturbing—stomach-churning, really. Here's one of the worst: "the woman lay...spread-eagled on her back. her wrists and ankles had been tied with barbed wire until the blood ran down her arms. More barbed wire wrapped around her head, the blood soaking her hair as it ran in rivulets from her scalp. Worst of all was the picture of Cristoff standing naked between the woman's spread legs fastening a spiked band around"his private parts. (p. 170) By the time I finished this book, I was wishing for a memory wipe or a brain wash to banish some of the images from my mind. The ending is a cliff hanger, that lets us know that, unfortunately, Quinn hasn't seen the last of Arturo. I probably won't be back to see that happen.
This blog entry contains an overview of the world-building for the series, brief summaries of the prequel and the first two books, and a full review of book 3.
The all-inclusive series title is WORLD OF THE MARROK (the Marrok being the head of the werewolf clan that is the focus of the series), but there are two subseries, each focusing on a different part of the clan: the Seattle werewolves (MERCY THOMPSON SERIES) and the Montana werewolves (ALPHA AND OMEGA SERIES). Several characters overlap the two series, particularly Bran Cornick, the Marrok, his sons Charles and Samuel, and Adam Hauptman, the Seattle pack leader who is Mercy Thompson's husband. Click HERE to read my discussion of the MERCY THOMPSON SERIES.
Readers should begin with "Alpha and Omega," where Briggs introduces Anna and Charles in a soul-mate romance story. (Click HERE to read my review of that anthology.) In this short story prequel, Charles, the executioner for his father's pack, rescues Anna and becomes her mate. Cry Wolf and Hunting Ground continue the couple's story in a manner that is more UF than SMR.
Anna is an Omega werewolf who was abused for years by a dysfunctional pack. According to this mythology, Omega wolves are rare and highly valued because they have a soothing, calming influence on other werewolves, and on fae and even humans as well. Charles is the son of Bran, the Marrok of all the werewolf packs, and he is the only born (not made) werewolf, which gives him more strength, better senses, and faster shifting abilities than other werewolves. For hundreds of years, Charles has served as his father's enforcer/executioner.
BOOKS 1 and 2
Cry Wolf begins immediately after the prequel with the couple's move to Charles's Montana home, where the two become embroiled in a battle with a powerful witch. Hunting Ground takes place just weeks later, when the couple heads to Seattle for a meeting with the leaders of the European werewolves and where attempts are made to kidnap Anna. In both of these books, Anna is trying to overcome her fearful, cautious outlook on life, and Charles is trying to help her become stronger. Their relationship can be somewhat rocky at times, but they are, after all, soul mates, so true love wins out in the end, every time.
BOOK 3: Fair Game
It's been three years since book 2 was published, and if you have been following the MERCY THOMPSON series, you know that the werewolves and fae of this alternate world have recently come out of the closet. Now, Bran and his alphas are dealing with the concerns and outright fears of the human population so all werewolves must be on their best behavior at all times. Bran has been forced to send Charles out to execute many werewolves around the country who have broken werewolf and human law by killing or injuring humans. Law-breaking wolves get no second chances any more because the werewolves' peaceful coexisitence with the humans is so tenuous.
The guilt that Charles feels about this constant killing is wearing him down. The ghosts of those he has executed look back at him from every mirrored surface, sucking away his energy and chastising him for their deaths. Charles isn't sharing this burden with anyone—not his father and certainly not Anna. He has even closed his mate bond with Anna because he fears that the ghosts will use it as a bridge to try to destroy her as they are destroying him. Not surprisingly, Anna is extremely worried about Charles. She has been trying to get Bran to ease up on Charles's assignments, but to no avail. Eventually, two other werewolves support Anna and voice their concerns to Bran, and he finally agrees to find a non-lethal assignment for Charles.
Bran decides to send Anna and Charles to Boston, where law enforcement officials have requested assistance in tracking down a serial killer who has tortured and murdered several supernaturals—werewolves and fae. When Anna and Charles arrive, they must work with a motley crew of humans from three federal agencies: the FBI, Homeland Security, and a new department—the Combined Nonhuman and Transhuman Relations Provisors (CANTRP, aka Cantrip, aka Trippers). Some of the humans are willing and unafraid to work with the werewolves, but others are fearful and antagonistic. Soon after Anna and Charles reach Boston and have their first meeting with the human team, a young half-fae woman is kidnapped, and her father, a powerful pure-blood fae, joins the team to assist in finding her. The story follows the investigation of the previous murders and the search for the girl.
Meanwhile, Charles is still seeing his ghosts and holding them back from Anna to the point that he seriously damages their mate bond, which becomes crucial late in the story. Anna really comes into her own in this book. Early in the series, she was damaged so badly by the abuse she suffered that she tended to be cautious to the point of weakness. But Charles vowed that she would never be helpless again, so he has worked with her, helping her to become physically stronger and defensively smarter. All that work pays off in this story.
We learn a great deal of information about the fae in this book—about their reproductive history with human women and about their powers and their various forms. At the end of the book, the fae take drastic action in the face of what they see as a human affront to justice. That action will directly affect all other supernaturals and will certainly have an effect on the next books in this series and in the MERCY THOMPSON series.
It's great to have this series back after such a long break. I've always liked Anna and Charles, and their characters have developed nicely over the years. The plot of this book pulled me right in and, although I guessed the identity of one of the villains early on, that didn't spoil it for me. Both of the plot lines (the serial killer and Charles's ghosts) are driven by compelling action and honest emotion.
Click HERE to go to a pertinent map of Boston on the author's web site. Click HERE to read the Prologue and chapter 1 from Fair Game.
This post was revised and updated on 1/26/13 to include a review of the second book in the series,Gilded.That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and a review of book 1:
BOOK 2: Gilded
This book has two story lines. One is the budding relationship between Cherry and her wealthy suitor, Lord Cornelius Kerrigan Compton. The other follows Cherry below the drift as she attempts to solve the murders of two professors. Hovering over both story lines is Cherry's obligation to the Karakash Veil. At the end of book one, the Veil saved Cherry's life, but they don't do anything for free. In return, Cherry must either track down a vial of her late father's alchemical formula or she must give herself up to the Veil—become their pet Collector. The Jack-the-Ripper murders are also in the background all through the book. Alchemy plays a huge role in this plot, but it isn't always clear just what all of the technical talk really means. Cherry finds 17th century alchemy textbooks and scholarly papers with strange symbols and somehow comes up with the identity of the murderer. I, on the other hand, figured out the murderer's identity without the use of the alchemy information—and you will, too. Once again, there are many, many loose ends. Typically, a series will have a series story arc, but then each separate book will have its own plot, with a full resolution of salient points and partial resolution of—or at least much more information about—the series story arc. In this series, that's not really the case. We don't learn what family problems fester in Lord Compton's family. We don't learn any more about the anonymous murderer who has been stalking Cherry in both books. We don't learn any more about Micajah (Cage) Hawke, who barely shows his face in this book. Another problem is that the reason that Cherry begins to investigate the professors' murders is strange and hard to believe. She goes to tea at Lady Rutledge's house and is asked to play detective. She can ask only five questions and then must solve the case. She is given no facts at all—not the identity of the murder victim, not the circumstances of the murder—nothing. And the questions she asks are so improbable that she gets little information. Yet, she goes home and ponders for awhile and soon is figuring out the entire crime from scratch. First, why would she even do this when she is under so much pressure to find her father's alchemical formula. After all, if she doesn't find it, she will forced to become a slave to the Veil (and to Cage). That search would seem to be her first and foremost priority, but the only time she spends any time on it is in the opening scene. All in all, this book was a disappointing follow-up to book 1, mostly because of its meandering, jargon-filled plot and the alarming escalation of Cherry's drug problem (laudanum and opium being her drugs of choice). Cherry's mental health also takes a scary turn in this book. Remember that her father was called the Mad St. Croix. Is Cherry inheriting his madness? The love-story story line is O.K., but there is so little emotion between the the Cherry and Lord Compton that I found it hard to care whether she decided to marry him or not. The ending is a cliff-hanger with Cherry in dire straits, and I have to admit that i'm looking forward to seeing where the author will take Cherry next. One last point: The cover art is quite deceiving. Cherry would never, ever wear a dress so low cut. And where is her "ruby-tinted" red hair?
The series is set in an alternate Victorian London, a city enveloped in a thick, smoky drift of fog. When the rich complained about the black smoke and the suffocating fog, Parliament debated whether to relocate London or force the factories to move. Eventually, they came up with a third solution. "The end result was the cleaving of London's well-to-do from its poor, its immigrants and those who couldn't maintain appearances. Historical buildings and those belonging to the peerage were raised by mighty steel stilts, cranked high by accordion girders and leaving channels between districts spanned by attractive walking bridges. It was as if select bits of London now hovered like mountain peaks amidst a sea of fog."(Tarnished, p. 17) The upper classes live, of course, in the clean air above the fog drift, and the lower classes cough their lungs out below the drift. Airships transport people between the two levels when necessary. This is a steampunk novel, to be sure, but the primary steampunk detail is the concept of various types of airships, including steam-driven gondolas that move the rich from one mansion to another along canals of pure, fog-free air.
The series heroine is a 20-year-old red-headed beauty who leads a double life. By day, she is Cherry St. Croix, the orphaned ward of a wealthy guardian, living in a fashionable neighborhood above the drift. By night, she is Miss Black, a collector—a bounty hunter—who hunts down her targets in dark, fog-choked alleys below the drift. Cherry is known to society as the daughter of the Mad Abraham St. Croix, an eccentric scientist who died with Cherry's mother in a fire in their home in Scotland when Cherry was a child. After her parents' death, Cherry was placed in a horrible orphanage that kept its inmates calm by dosing them with laudanum. Over the years, Cherry became addicted to opiates, and she still has trouble sleeping without a swig of laudanum to send her off to dreamland.
As is frequently the case, a mysterious, Mafia-like organization—the Karakash Veil—controls the dark side of London. The Veil is run by Chinese immigrants and is headquartered in an area of London called the Midnight Menagerie. Here is Cherry's description: "One part circus, one part park, one bit fair ground and all elaborate....Exotic animals and strange foreign creatures from around the world?...Midnight sweets [aka prostitutes], ripe for the taking and skilled in the art of love-making? Masquerades, drinking wells, elaborate dance halls...all of this and more fell under the domain of the Karakash Veil." (Tarnished, p. 82) The Menagerie's ringmaster and all-around boss is the tall, dark, and dangerous Micajah (Cage) Hawke.
Cherry stays away from the Menagerie's circus because she has horrible, opium-fuzzy memories of her years as a forced performer in another circus—the one to which the orphanage owners sold her. She was rescued from that circus by Ashmore, her guardian, who had been trying to track her down ever since her parents died. Cherry has lived in fear of Ashmore ever since she first met him while she was in the midst of an opium dream and he appeared to her to be a monster. Ashmore is a mysterious, unseen figure in book 1.
BOOK 1: Tarnished
In the opening scene, Cherry (in her Miss Black disguise) collects and delivers a man to the Menagerie, leaving him tied to the gate with her calling card in his pocket because she is pressed for time. When she goes to Cage for her bounty, he claims that she never made the delivery, so she will receive no payment. When she discovers that Cage is lying, Cherry is determined to figure out why. She needs the money because her guardian keeps her on a strict allowance and she's about to run out of both money and laudanum. The story follows Cherry as she prowls the alleys and opium dens below the drift by night and returns home by dawn to wash the lampblack out of her bright red hair and hide her mannish clothing (both part of her disguise).
Cherry has always held firm on two major issues: She will never marry, and she will never believe in magic. Cherry wants to be an independent woman, studying science—not magic—with her friend, Lord Helmsley (aka Teddy). She is due to receive a large inheritance within the year, and she has no intention of allowing any of it to go to any man. One night, Cherry is forced by her elderly chaperon, Fanny, to attend a ball, where she dances with the tall, blond, and wealthy Lord Cornelius Kerrigan Compton, who seems to enjoy her company immensely. Unfortunately, Compton's mother hates Cherry, and forces her son to join her in cutting, or shunning, Cherry publicly. Compton, though, has a mind of his own and soon shows up to apologize for his and his mother's behavior and to invite her to another ball. Soon, they share a kiss, and Cherry learns that male-female relationships aren't so bad after all.
As Cherry continues her investigation, she is attacked several times and eventually succumbs to a mysterious, feverish, delirium after she inhales a pink gaseous cloud that emanates from a cameo picturing a beautiful woman. During this hallucinatory period, Cage saves her life, but is forced to use sexual pleasuring as part of the cure. So now, Cherry has two attractive men in her life—the sexy bad boy and the handsome nobleman.
The ending leaves all sorts of loose ends unresolved, and that, for me, is problematic. It seems that more and more authors are trying to manipulate readers into buying a series of their books by tantalizing them with bits and pieces of characterization and story lines that have little or no bearing on the present book but will play out eventually in future books. You really can't read Tarnished without coming away disappointed and dissatisfied. You want to know why Compton and his somewhat sleazy brother leave town so abruptly. Why can't anyone find the remains of the mysterious laboratory in the ThamesTunnel that plays such an important part in the climax? Why is Ashmore so secretive about himself and his travels? In fact, why doesn't Ashmore ever appear in person in any scene? Who is the nameless, faceless collector who has targeted Cherry in very dangerous ways?
Although the plot had a few holes and illogical moments, the action is compelling and the characters are engaging. I'll read the next book because I'm interested in watching what happens between Cherry and her two love interests, and even though I don't enjoy being manipulated, I can't help wanting to find the answers to the questions I posed in the previous paragraph.
FYI: One of Cherry's favorite expressions is "Allez, hop," which she cries out as she performs various acrobatic maneuvers. Here, she is edging up onto the roof of a building: "'Allez, hop!' I muttered, and bent backward almost double until my feet touched the rooftop." (p. 136) Click HERE for a definition of that term.
This is a graphic novel that tells the story of an intrepid young man—ragged and one-armed—desperately trying to survive in the aftermath of a zombie plague. The nameless protagonist treats you, the reader, as a new acquaintance who has joined his horrific existence. He takes you to underground safe spaces, finds food for the pair of you, and alternates look-out watches with you during the night.
An early scene: The unnamed protagonist welcomes you, the reader, into his world.
This is not a Walking Dead read-alike. Instead, it focuses on the zombie threat rather than on scenes of bloody carnage in a suspense-filled, moment-by-moment chronicle of a survivor's perilous struggle to remain alive. The story follows you and your companion (and, eventually, a wayward dog) as you make your way across the remains of wrecked building, overturned cars, and mountains of trash—with the zombies (shown mostly in solid-color profile) staggering along behind. The entire landscape is a rubble-strewn wasteland inhabited only by you, your companions, the zombies, and an occasional unfriendly and untrustworthy fellow survivor.
The story is, ultimately, about the power of friendship under dire circumstances. Although we travel with the protagonist for a only few days, we begin to bond with him in an odd, superficial kind of way. No deep personal secrets or stories are shared. This friendship is based solely on living through the night—and the next day, and the next.
If you’re looking for something different in zombie fiction, you should check this one out.
The artwork is drawn in dark brown in six-panel grids on off-white paper, emphasizing the stark desolation of the landscape and the desperation of the survivors.
The zombie arm-grab in the last panel above (along with a few more undead grasping arms in the next few frames) is the peak of zombie action actually seen in this story. It's all about the tension—not the blood and guts.
Set in an alternate Johannesburg, South Africa, this is a world in which people who commit murder immediately become permanent hosts to living animals. Imagine that the scarlet letter on Hester Prynne's chest is a furry mammal—or perhaps a spider, a bird, or a reptile. Animalled people must keep their animals physically close, or they will suffer terrible pain. If an animal dies, a shadowy, roaring mass called the Undertow drops down from above to engulf and obliterate its host. The animals serve as a constant reminder of the crime that brought them into their hosts' lives. Along with the animal comes a psychic talent—a shavi—different for each person. In this book, the plague of animal possession—called Aposymbiotism—dates back to the 1980s in a not-so-subtle reference to the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in Africa.
This idea of animal possession is a part of several real-world mythologies. According to Zimbabwean tradition, the mashavi (singular, shavi) are spirits believed to possess people and to impart skills and talents to their human hosts. In Christianity, the idea of spirit animals can be linked to the biblical scapegoat of Leviticus 16 and to the burden of sin carried by the protagonist in Pilgrim's Progress. Chapter 19 of Zoo City presents a detailed explanation of what mashavi means in this story, so you may want to read that chapter before reading the story to get a full understanding.
In the world of Zoo City, an animal arrives seemingly from nowhere immediately after the commission of each person's murderous crime, changing its host's life forever. As Zinzi says, "the problem with being mashavi is that it's not so much a job as a vocation. You don't get to choose the ghosts that attach themselves to you. Or the things they bring with them."(p. 18) As you can well imagine, Aposymbiots (aka animalled people) are marginalized—forced to live in ghettos like Zoo City, where they create their own lively sub-culture. When "normal" people see an animalled person, they have the same reaction that a Nazi in Hitler's Germany would have had when he or she encountered a person wearing a yellow star of David on a coat or jacket. Here, one character fumes after a security guard pulls him out of his car and grills him at length, "Animalists everywhere....They'd bring back the quarantine camps if they could."Zinzi responds:"What do you call Zoo City?" (p. 107)
Muti (aka magic) is an important part of the story. The magical concept of mashavi is key to the story's conflict as well as being the single most important element in the lives of the animalled people of Zoo City. Most of the people of this alternate Johannesburg believe in magic and regularly make use of herbs, charms, and spells to make their lives easier and safer. In one dramatic scene, Zinzi, the heroine, visits a sangoma(a healer) who feeds her a potion that gives her hallucinatory flashbacks to terrible past incidents in her life as well as frightening visions of the future.
Zinzi December is a former journalist and recovering addict who received Sloth, her animal, five years ago when she was instrumental in the death of her brother, an act that landed her in prison. Technically, Zinzi didn’t kill her brother, but she did set up a car hijacking as an insurance scam and failed to tell him about it. When he came to her rescue, the hijacker shot him down. Now, Zinzi lives Zoo City in an ironically named apartment building called Elysium Heights where she makes a meager living finding lost things (her shavi talent) and running 419 e-mail scams to earn enough money to pay off her huge pre-prison debt to her drug dealer. Zinzi's lover is Benoît, a refugee who lost his family in the violence in the Congo. Benoît received his animal—a mongoose—after he was forced by his FDLR captors to kill his best friend, Felipe. The FDLR also poured paraffin over Benoît and lit him afire, so he is covered with slick burn scars. Benoît's shavi is a natural resistance to other people's magic.
As the story opens, Zinzi has a new client—Mrs. Luditsky, an elderly woman who dropped her diamond ring down a drain in a public restroom when bandits attacked the Mall in which she was shopping. Zinzi finds the ring, but when she returns it, she discovers that Mrs. Luditsky has been murdered and she is the prime suspect. At the crime scene, Zinzi meets an animalled couple: Amira (whose animal is a carrion-eating marabou stork) and Mark (whose animal is an orange-dyed Maltese). They offer Zinzi a job tracking down Songweza Radebe, an up-and-coming pop singer who has gone missing. Song sings with her twin brother, S'bu. Their manager—and the one who is hiring Zinzi—is the devious Odysseus (Odi) Huron, a wealthy club owner, music producer, and drug dealer. Here, Zinzi describes Huron: "Mr. Huron...emerges onto the balcony with a flourish. He's not so much a barrel of a man as a bagpipe. All his weight loaded in front." (p. 95) In a review in The Guardian, Huron is perfectly described as "a dreadfully gone-to-seed South African Simon Cowell."
The story follows Zinzi as she works the case, getting deeper and deeper into trouble as she goes. In the meantime, Benoît receives word from a Red Cross aid worker that his wife and three children are alive in a refuge camp, and he plans to leave Johannesburg to reunite with them. So…Zinzi’s professional life and her personal life come crashing down on her simultaneously.
Although a crime thriller lies at the heart of the plot, the story is so much more. It's a wild phantasm of hip-hop music, urban jive-talk, quirky characters (including Sloth), and heartbreak—all with a heavy dose of magical realism. Zinzi is an intriguing and intelligent lead character who is making the best of her troubled life even if she doesn't like the things she has to do to survive—like scamming a nice American Mid-Western couple out of their life savings so that she can make yet another payment on her old drug debt.
Zinzi tells her story in the first-person voice, but her narration is frequently interrupted by information-filled chapters in the form of e-mails, magazine articles, and interviews. One satirical example is a scholarly journal article that purports to scientifically explain the Undertow as a "manifestation of non-existence, a psychic equivalent of dark matter that indeed serves as a counterpoint to, and bedrock for, the principle of existence....This type of understanding of the 'Undertow', not as divine judgement but rather as a necessary part of the fabric of the physical universe, can only serve to relieve Aposymbiot [animalled] individuals of the intense burden of guilt they often carry." (p. 193) What a perfect send-up of the current psychobabble that attempts to assuage people's guilt by explaining away each and every human vice as a "disease" or a "condition" rather than the consequence of a behavioral choice.
This is a terrific book—a totally fresh approach to urban fantasy that breaks away from a strict good vs. evil take on life. Beukes tells a great story and her descriptions are wonderfully written, full of colorful metaphors and descriptions of life in Zoo City. The climactic ending is probably the weakest point of the story, primarily because it reverts to a modern-thriller action sequence. This is not to say that that the ending is badly written; it's just that the rest of the book is so original and offbeat that I was expecting more of the same all the way to the end. As it turns out, the climax is both pop-thriller-esque and stomach-turningly violent in a Steven King-ish sort of way. The very last scene leaves Zinzi's life in suspension—and open to a sequel. Let's hope that Beukes carries Zinzi's story forward in a sequel.
I listened first to the perfectly performed audiobook and then went to the print version to double-check quotations and spellings. I recommend the audio version highly. It is read in a multitude of different voices by Justine Eyre. Zoo City won the 2011 Arthur C. Clark award.
Please note that all spelling and punctuation in the quotations are in the British style and are presented here exactly as written in the text.