Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James – REVIEW
Tracker is known far and wide for his skills as a hunter: “He has a nose,” people say. Engaged to track down a mysterious boy who disappeared three years earlier, Tracker breaks his own rule of always working alone when he finds himself part of a group that comes together to search for the boy. The band is a hodgepodge, full of unusual characters with secrets of their own, including a shape-shifting man-animal known as Leopard.
As Tracker follows the boy’s scent–from one ancient city to another; into dense forests and across deep rivers–he and the band are set upon by creatures intent on destroying them. As he struggles to survive, Tracker starts to wonder: Who, really, is this boy? Why has he been missing for so long? Why do so many people want to keep Tracker from finding him? And perhaps the most important questions of all: Who is telling the truth, and who is lying?
Drawing from African history and mythology and his own rich imagination, Marlon James has written a novel unlike anything that’s come before it: a saga of breathtaking adventure that’s also an ambitious, involving read. Defying categorization and full of unforgettable characters, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is both surprising and profound as it explores the fundamentals of truth, the limits of power, and our need to understand them both.
“The ground was right now not the ground, and the sky was not the sky, and lie was truth and truth was a shifting, slithering thing.”
I finished this book last night and can’t stop thinking about it. It’s like nothing I’ve read before so it’s not easily comparable to other fantasy books. The author himself described it as the African Game of Thrones and the blend of fantasy with adult content is certainly similar. But Marlon James has decentralised the white European fantasy narrative by rooting his story in African folklore, myths and legends.
“Our good friend the Leopard still doesn’t know that there is no black in man, only shades and shades of grey.”
I’ll admit it took me about a hundred pages to get into the rhythm of James’ writing style and to adapt to the surreal story but, once I did, I was completely engrossed. The plot itself concerns a group of people coming together to find a missing boy, encountering fantastical creatures, monsters and magical beings on the way.
“If you lived all your life with monsters, what was monstrous?”
This book focuses on Tracker, a man with a powerful nose who can track anyone. I loved how morally grey all the characters were and how difficult it was to trust anyone. The friendship between Tracker and the Leopard was one of my favourite aspects, their banter providing some much-needed light relief. The relationship between Tracker and Mossi was beautifully portrayed and it was refreshing to see a gay relationship take centre-stage.
“You think as they do that suffering from cruelty or escaping it is a matter of desire or means, when it is a matter of power.”
Tracker is an unreliable narrator though and the concept of truth is frequently explored. Is there such a thing as absolute truth? The author has stated that the next two books in the trilogy tell the events of this book from two different perspectives. Who is telling the truth? Can the reader ever be certain? Do we need to know? These are all questions I’m eager to see examined in the rest of the trilogy.
“From women he take everything so they have nothing, but nothing is something too big for any one woman to bear.”
The book can be extremely violent at times, including scenes of rape, torture, and abuse. These scenes could be triggers for some readers so please beware of this before reading. Overall, I was mesmerised by this epic African fantasy, with its complex characters and lyrical writing style. I can’t wait for the sequel to submerse myself in this richly detailed narrative once again.
[Disclaimer: ARC received in exchange for an honest review.]