Content Warning: references to suicide, animal cruelty, descriptions of violence
Arctic Zoo is a YA thriller about young people coming into their own power. Centred on fifteen and sixteen year old Georgia and Julius, we explore their different worlds – London, England and Akure, Nigeria – and how they end up crossing paths on a mental health ward. Their stay on the ward isn’t the focus though, rather it’s the culmination of events that are formative in their young lives and which catapult them into their next stage of growing up.
The action of Arctic Zoo, from drone races to street fights and riots, moves the story along at a brisk pace that doesn’t allow Julius and Georgia much time to consider their options or digest their thoughts. Yet, throughout, there’s a lot of emotional work being done. YA is one of the most interesting genres because the teen years are so full of potential and all it takes is a catalyst to create impactful and meaningful change.
Julius is a black teenager from a wealthy, powerful family in Akure, South Western Nigeria. He’s tall, somewhat gangly, kind and an outsider within his family, in part because he’s gay. He isn’t coming to terms with his identity, he’s already done that. Rather he’s coming to terms with his situation in a country where he isn’t safe to be himself. A blossoming relationship with classmate Duke leads Julius to confront the realities of his family, particularly his mother and where her wealth comes from, government corruption and eventually to trying to make his home town a better place.
Meanwhile, in London, Georgia is a white, studious teen who looks to follow in her older sister’s footsteps with as little fuss or trouble as possible. Her waning interest in flying drones, which her father uses in his work, becomes unimportant when the unthinkable happens and her sister takes her own life. Georgia begins to question the choices she’s making and is brought into a protest collective that accidentally makes her the poster teen for rebellion and the public stand against local government budget cuts.
Robert Muchamore makes his story feel grounded in reality with visually imaginative details of both England and Nigeria. His observations are striking, from rolled up notes used as bribes to the taste of first alcoholic drinks. These details allow you to live in these two teenagers’ worlds, enjoying the nuances and differences of each. Despite traversing numerous locations, and even a couple of continents, Muchamore never loses his hold over what’s empowering these young people, which is as much their youthful drive to take action, regardless of consequences, as their perpetual worry about what comes next. Teenagers are enigmas, and that’s what makes them so dynamic and surprising.
Arctic Zoo is an enjoyable, highly digestible novel with a robust story that’s captivating throughout. With short chapters, you can easily dive in and out, though you’ll also be able to convince yourself to read just ONE MORE chapter before trying to close the book. A great read for anyone looking for a YA book that taps into some of the important topics of today, such as loneliness, hope, equality, politics and friendship.
Arctic Zoo was published by Hot Key Books on 11 July 2019