Reviewed by Clifford Jongko
BLACK LEOPARD, RED WOLF
By Marlon James
640 pages. Riverhead Books.
It has a rhythm and melody that took me a few chapters to get used to, but once I did, the story unfolded like an intricately-woven puzzle box. At six hundred-plus pages, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a finely-woven and nuanced tapestry; the beginnings of a dark fantasy saga.
“He Has a Nose”
The book spoils itself with its opening sentence, as told by the hunter known only as Tracker, the titular Red Wolf. The story is framed in medias res during an inquisition, where we find our captive hero retelling his story. Early on, the most striking element of Black Leopard, Red Wolf makes itself apparent: this is not a trope-laden fantasy novel. No damsel in distress, no sword-bearing hero leading the charge, no deus ex machina of a wizard saving the day at the last second.
What we get is a loner who can’t remember his own name, who can’t even use a bow and arrow, and who has zero social skills. But Tracker is named as such because “he has a nose”: he can find anyone anywhere by scent alone, even if the tracks are years old. He uses his skill for finding missing children—or as is sometimes the case, their bodies—and husbands who ran out on their families.
Until one day, he is hired to find a boy.
Tracker is joined in this increasingly-dangerous quest by a revolving door of mercenaries, witches, and a certain shape-shifter who can turn himself into a leopard. A black one. As the stakes get higher, the circumstances surrounding the boy’s disappearance becomes even more suspect. Who is this boy, truly? Why does he seem so near one second, and so far the next? And why are they being thwarted by everything from assassins to demons who walk on ceilings?
African Game of Thrones
Author Marlon James has referred to Black Leopard, Red Wolf as the “African Game of Thrones” (or A Song of Ice and Fire, since we’re talking about written works here), and in certain respects, he was spot on: the graphic depictions of taboo sex and violence, the suspense of not knowing who will die next, and a certain friendly not-giant with a familiar circumstance surrounding his name.
But it is also the African The Hobbit, with its fallible protagonist committed to his quest. It is also the African Conan the Barbarian, for the sheer brutality in its battle scenes. It also has strong echoes of Imaro, with its rich Afrocentric mythology. It is all of these, yet it beats its own unique rhythm that creates its own niche in an already-overcrowded genre.
A Challenging But Rewarding Read
What makes Black Leopard, Red Wolf fresh and unique is also what may make it challenging for casual fantasy readers. None of the usual sword-and-sorcery tropes are to be found in the book. If you do find swords, it has been used on children and the infirm; if you do find sorcery, it is the kind that brings death and disease. The flow of conversation can sometimes get too dense, to the point where I had to go back a page or two because of the shifts in narrative. My review copy only came with placeholder pages for maps, which might have aided my reading experience in following Tracker’s journey in an unfamiliar land. Maps certainly were helpful during my first forays into then-unfamiliar Middle-Earth.
Having said that, adventurous readers who will give this book a chance will be rewarded by worlds of dark and strange delights. The book spoils itself with its opening sentence, true, but the path that led to that end, with its violent and hallucinatory twists and turns, is the bigger mystery. It may be the first of a trilogy, yet the book stands on its own as a complete story. If you are looking for a fresh new take on dark fantasy, Black Leopard, Red Wolf should definitely be on your list.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James will be available soon at Fully Booked branches and Fully Booked Online. Reserve your copy in advance here.
Clifford is a content writer and musician who loves coffee, graphic novels, and bad puns. He co-hosts comic book/graphic novel podcast Those Fcking Nerds (@thoseeffingnerds) on Facebook. Follow his Twitter and Instagram handle @tapsilogic at your own risk.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]