Marlon James fourth novel, and the first in a planned trilogy, Black Leopard, Red Wolf seems an unusual next act for an author whose last book, the deeply literary A Brief History of Seven Killings, won the prestigious Booker prize (the first time the honor went to a Jamaican author). But if this marks his first voyage into full-on (if not entirely traditional) fantasy, he did flirt with genre elements in his debut, 2005’s John Crow’s Devil. But if the new novel’s logline—early press billed it as “an African Game of Thrones”—suggests James’ lane shift was motivated by a desire to write a bestseller, the final product allays those fears. This is unapologetically a fantasy, yes, and it’s full of monsters and magic and thrilling action—in short, it is great fun to read. But it is also every bit as complex and poetic as its prize-winning predecessor.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf introduces Tracker (his only name), a pragmatically ruthless, but not entirely amoral, hunter for hire. “He has a nose,” it if often said. Certainly he is possessed of a hunting ability that dances between the mere skill and the supernatural. At the novel’s outset, he returns an abused spouse to her husband as per the terms of the job he accepted, but not without providing her with a solid suggestion for permanently dealing with her tormentor. It’s seems the least he can do, but the act is reflective of not only Tracker’s own complex morality, but also the ambiguous ethics of the world he inhabits.
Tracker’s next job involves finding a boy who has been missing for three years. The hunt sends Tracker, who has partnered with a band of mercenaries, on a tour through James’ lush vision of fantasy land inspired by pan-African, pre-colonial history, myth, and trauma. They traipse though ancient cities and forbidding forests, pursuing and pursued by any number of horrific (and occasionally helpful) creatures. Each of the hunters (including one known as Leopard) hides secrets, and some know more than they’re willing to let on about the fate of the mysterious boy. Tracker’s doubts about his task grow as he’s forced to confront not only a dangerous quest but the realization that critical information is being withheld from him. Who is the boy, really, and why are so many people so invested in his recovery—or in ensuring he stays gone?
Yes, it’s tempting to compare every dark fantasy vision to A Game of Thrones, and there are elements reminiscent of George R. R. Martin’s unforgiving world and cast of unreliable, irredeemable characters. But the influences on display are many and varied: what Tolkien was able to do with the beats of western European folklore, James is does for sub-Saharan Africa, and then some. There’s also a flavor of Robert Howard in the way he luxuriates in the grit and grime of an earlier world that’s far more brutal, but also far freer than ours. And far from dodging the tropes of fantasy literature and folklore, James luxuriates in them—at least for a bit, before twisting them into entirely new shapes. The hunt for the boy is the point, but it’s also a framework for an exploration of an incredibly rich, instantly indelible world.
That’s all wonderful, but even more than for what the story is about, this book impresses for how it is about it. Marlon James lays out his prose like a king’s feast: it’s dense, layered, and incredibly rich. There are writers who can tell a great story, and there are writers who can cast a spell with words—either skillset can lead to a good book, but not every author is a master of both. James may just be. Certainly he tells an ripping story, all the while inviting (sometimes demanding) that you savor every sentence. It’s a fitting quality, given that the ability to tell a good story is so prized a skill in Tracker’s world.
This forbidding vision of an ancient Africa is beautiful and bloody, and as true as any real or imagined world described in literature. You might wish to visit, if the place wasn’t so likely to kill you. As Tracker and company wend their way through this phantasmagorical land at a deliberate, if not leisurely, pace, James’ attention to detail is nearly hypnotic. If it’s true that this is a long and dense book, and that it is easy to lose your way in the winding narrative, it is also true that not a sentence feels wasted. The prose is enchanting, which is not the same as calling it pretty: this is a world of blood, dirt, and stink—you can practically smell the musk and sweat pouring off of the unrepentantly filthy Leopard. The violence is visceral (among others, a moment involving a lost eye will stick with you for a long time). So is the sex, occurring most often between men (or male-identified were-creatures), which James describes with that same keen sense for tastes, sounds, and smells. For all the African influences, there’s a bit of Greek myth in the relationship between the book’s two lead characters, and the exhilaratingly free but unsentimental couplings, part and parcel of the novel’s exploration of notions of masculinity.
The story follows Tracker on a long and twisting journey, and the narrative momentum builds throughout. Along the way, the characters pass through extraordinary kingdoms and evocative landscapes—a wealth of pan-African history, myth, traditional religion, and legend sampled, re-mixed, and filtered through a prodigious imagination, and filled with tricksters, griots, witches, were-creatures, and giant men. Some of these elements are traceable to their inspirations, many others seem to have been reimagined so thoroughly as to be almost wholly the author’s.
In Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Marlon James has crafted a world as beautiful as it is forbidding, full of slippery, fascinating, fully realized characters. It’s early days, but it surely seems likely to be judged one of 2019’s best and most revelatory works of fantasy.
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