'Black Leopard, Red Wolf' by Marlon James
'A man will suffer misery to get to the bottom of truth, but he will not suffer boredom.'—Review #183
‘My mother is allowed to read all but two pages of this book’ is how Marlon James concludes his Acknowledgements to ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf,’ a 2019 National Book Award finalist and the opening installment of his Dark Star Trilogy. Since I’ve finished the 620-page novel, which took me almost a month, I’ve wondered where those two pages are, because much of this tale doesn’t strike me as mom-friendly.
Here’s the cover:
In the inside-cover blurbs, Salman Rushdie compares ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’ to ‘Game of Thrones,’ Michiko Kakutani likens it to the Marvel Universe and Neil Gaiman says it evokes the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. It is set in an ancient Africa full of magic, shapeshifting beings, monsters, political intrigue, slavery and violence. It follows Tracker, a bounty hunter with a superhuman nose for sniffing out his quarry. He is hired to find a mysterious boy whose fate may have cataclysmic consequences. Tracker encounters an eclectic array of characters on his mission: Leopard (a namesake cat who can transform into a man), Sadogo (a giant, but don’t call him that or he’ll get upset), Sologon (a witch who’s more than 300 years old), Bunshi (a being that transforms from water to woman), Mossi (a fighter), a water buffalo (that’s also good at fighting), and the Mingi (children with special attributes like Giraffe Boy, who has long legs, and Smoke Girl, a girl made of smoke), among others. Tracker visits fantastical places including a city built on treetops with elevators, one with towers like skyscrapers and another fortified by walls within walls within walls, as well as a sinister forest with magical and bloodthirsty creatures. As I started to immerse in this world, I was like:
But then I struggled. Here’s why:
Violence, but no danger: ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’ has swordplay, gore and rape throughout. But Tracker navigates it protected by plot armor. This undermines every peril, blunting the excitement. One thing I like about ‘Game of Thrones’ is that any character at any time could be killed; protagonist, background character, all are in danger. I understand narrow escapes come with the genre, and though there are several heart-pounding sequences, I would have been more invested in Tracker’s plight if I felt he was more at risk.
A distracting fixation on hurting children. I am neither a prude about artistic expression, nor am I a big fan of children, but I was shocked at their treatment. Children are enslaved, murdered, eaten by creatures, bred specifically to be eaten by other creatures, taken as lovers by adults, possessed by ghosts, dismembered and sold at witch’s markets, and turned into zombies to be killed all over again, among other horrors. I understand that violence and death toward women and children also come with the genre (do they really need to?), but it took me out of the story. I wonder what this violence means artistically. Perhaps it is a critique of how children are collateral damage in wars and the adventures of men? Maybe it’s a warning to children about their powerlessness? Either way, there is a serious Anakin and the younglings energy here:
I was bored. Despite the cool characters and exciting moments, the book dragged. I thought of abandoning it.
Even so, there are some things I like:
I could almost smell this world. James made all the funks and fumes discerned by Tracker’s nasal powers—from animal smells to body odor to stained clothing to excrement and other human effluvium—come alive in my mind. It felt like I was inhaling it all alongside Tracker.
Tracker is complicated. He’s a mercenary with a code, but he’s still figuring out what that code is. He’s loyal to some, petty to others, an ace with a throwing axe and often puts his foot in his mouth. He hates wearing clothes, but he approaches his quest like a noir detective, shaking down informants for facts and sniffing out lies among friends and foes.
Tracker is in an all-male love triangle. That’s something I hadn’t seen in a fantasy novel before (but my experience is limited). And I liked that he was forced to work with an ex after a bad breakup. When it came to these Fleetwood Mac vibes, I was like:
But most of all I appreciate James’s mission for his trilogy. He said in an interview with BookForum that ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’ (and its just-released sequel ‘Moon Witch, Spider King’) were written ‘out of a desire for me to find a better, or more profound, origin narrative for me than than whichever ancestor came off the slave ship.’1 I support that objective. Even so, this is the second time2 I’ve struggled to connect to one of his novels. I’m not sure I will return to this world for the second and third installments. ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’ didn’t work for me, but I hope to know one day which pages James won’t show his mother.
How it begins:
The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.
I hear there is a queen in the south who kills the man who brings her bad news. So when I give word of the boy’s death, do I write my own death with it? Truth eats lies just as the crocodile eats the moon, and yet my witness is the same today as it will be tomorrow. No, I did not kill him. Though I may have wanted him dead. Craved for it the way a glutton craves goat flesh. Oh, to draw a bow and fire it through his black heart and watch it explode black blood, and to watch his eyes for when they stop blinking, when they look but stop seeing, and to listen for his voice croaking and hear his chest heave in a death rattle saying, Look, my wretched spirit leaves this most wretched of bodies, and to smile at such tidings and dance at such a loss. Yes, I glut at the conceit of it. But no, I did not kill him.
Bi oju ri enu a pamo.
Not everything the eye sees should be spoken by the mouth.
This cell is larger than the one before. I smell the dried blood of executed men; I hear their ghosts still screaming. Your bread carries weevils, and your water carries the piss of ten and two guards and the goat they fuck for sport. Shall I give you a story?
‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’ by Marlon James was published by Riverhead Books in 2019 and 2020. 620 pages. $16.56 at Bookshop.org.
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ICYMI: Review #182
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The BookForum quote included ‘than than,’ so I left it in.
Way back at the beginning of Books on GIF I reviewed Booker Prize-winning ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings.’ I was frustrated by that book, too.