I received a copy of this book on Netgalley. And I was pretty excited about it, actually – I like Robert Muchamore.
From London . . .
Georgia gets straight As at school, writes essays for fun, has been placed first in twenty-six drone races and has a serious addiction to buying Japanese stationery. She plans to follow her older sister Sophie and become a doctor, but her worldview is shattered when Sophie commits suicide.
To Lagos . . .
Julius lives in Ondo, a Nigerian state where half the population lives on less than a dollar a day. But he isn’t one of them. His uncle has been governor of Ondo for more than a decade and his mother is the power behind that throne. He finds refuge in a derelict zoo with best friend Duke, but as the two of them grow close, the world outside becomes more and more hostile.
Following two teenagers living very different lives, ARCTIC ZOO is a startling contemporary novel about protest, sexuality, mental heath and flawed leadership, from the bestselling author of CHERUB.
This is Robert Muchamore’s second book published with Hot Key Books, and both books show a marked departure from his Cherub and Henderson’s Boys style. I haven’t read Muchamore’s Rock War books, so I can’t really compare, but certainly, it’s a very different style of read to what I’m used to from Muchamore. That said, Arctic Zoo has many similarities to Killer T – and a brief easter egg in-text actually shows that they’re set in the same universe, which is fun. Muchamore’s universe is Brexit-agnostic, however, as more in-text references show. No mention of whether or not the political nonsense currently ongoing took place in Georgia and Julius’s worlds.
Anyways, with the preliminaries done. Arctic Zoo is another example of how engaging Muchamore’s writing is. I read this very quickly, over the course of perhaps two days, and found myself drawn back to it, wanting to see how it developed. Julius and Georgia are two very different main characters, living their lives on different continents, and seeing how they move towards each other and their lives end up intertwining is interesting. I’ve got a particular dislike of stories which don’t intertwine by the end of the book, but this one does, and it wraps everything up in a satisfying way which makes this a solid standalone novel.
I think my main problem with this book – and the reason why I, personally, couldn’t give it more than a three-star review – was how brutal it was. There is serious violence peppered throughout the book, often completely senselessly, and even our main characters, who are generally portrayed as sympathetic, likeable characters, are capable of truly shocking acts. Both characters are young when the book starts – only fourteen – and impulsive in the way which comes with feeling like an invincible teenager. But throughout the book, the narrator doesn’t look at any of this with a critical eye. Georgia and Julius make some seriously questionable moral decisions, and there isn’t really any assessment of how or why they came to make these decisions, whether there was an alternative, or anything like that.
I was also – in my own, extremely ignorant way – a little sketchy about the depictions of Nigeria. Julius, one of the main characters, is an immensely privileged son of a wealthy Nigerian family, and there is a lot of discussion of the corrupt nature of Nigerian society. But throughout the book the description felt pretty skeevy to me – a lot like a superior white man pointing out how terrible things are in Nigeria, and how they must work harder to make themselves more civilised. There was a lot of scope in Arctic Zoo to make critical comparisons with British society, where the rest of the book is set, and how attitudes of cronyism, nepotism, and corruption cross borders and cultures. Where Muchamore saves himself is by pointing out that White Saviours are not a trope that can fix any issues with this – change must come from within. His critical understanding and depiction of this in the latter parts of the book saves Arctic Zoo from being intensely condescending.
I’m not sure this book was really the right thing for me. Brutal violence and homophobia, a lack of critique of those things, and a disjointed story meant that it didn’t tick enough boxes to be a winner for me. But that said, I’m sure there are plenty of people it would really resonate with, and open their eyes to structures of power, protest, and change (as well as the intrinsically blinkered view of the media and their interest only in things which are edgy). So it’s not a terrible book. It’s just not for me.