Reading Through the Awards: Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

August 20, 2020

In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf, recent winner of the Locus Award for Best Horror Novel (among other honors: the L.A. Times Ray Bradbury Prize, a finalist for the National Book Award), is our next selection.

Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): 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?

Clocking in over 600 pages, Marlon James’s 2019 fantasy novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the first of planned trilogy series exploring a mythical Africa full of magic, warring city-states, and enchanted humans. The plot is structured around a conversation between the Inquisitor and the protagonist known only as Tracker, who is a skilled hunter with a magical “nose” that helps him find people. Tracker tells the Inquisitor his story in sections of flashbacks beginning with his early childhood, and several quests, ultimately leading to the main journey he undertakes with several other magical beings to find a child who was missing for over three years.

Promoted as an excellent blend of African folklore, literary fiction, and fantasy, James’ novel promises intrigue before readers even turn the first page, but did it live up to the hype? I argue the hype is irrelevant as it all comes down to the kind of reader you are. As a reader, there were times I couldn’t set the book down where the maze-like prose was almost fun to solve and gave the impression of being told a folk story in the oral tradition, adding to the mythological nature of the book. Other times, that intricate prose and lack of investment from the protagonist in his adventure proved arduous, confusing, and made me wonder whether I wanted to continue reading. By the end of the novel, I was vaguely aware of the plot, a little tired, and yet somewhat satisfied because this is a different kind of read. It neither cares about the plot of the story it is trying to tell, nor what kind of audience is reading it. Its brilliance lies in the subtle but powerful truth of the novel that the protagonist only cares about his emotional need to flee his family trauma and the legacy it wrought at any personal cost. Again, this purpose of the book isn’t apparent upfront, but is my takeaway after serious consideration of why the book’s plot felt irrelevant. Moreover, I think this concept of the Tracker’s emotional need outweighing everything else in the novel, and themes that his need enacts is really what makes the book intriguing. Plus, who doesn’t also find witchcraft and men who can turn into leopards kind of cool to read?

Overall, while Black Leopard, Red Wolf is refreshing and different, it is also neither a fun read, a hype read or something for ardent readers who love a good challenge. In the spirit of the novel’s opacity, look into what kind of reader you are and go for it if you so choose.

Cassandra Wagner

Marlon James’s 2019 long-anticipated high fantasy novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, was always going to be brutal. Described half-jokingly by James as an “African Game of Thrones,” and by reviewers as “Rashomon-esque,” its hype presaged the novel’s focus on truth and violence. And on these counts it delivers. Tracker, a gifted mercenary who hunts using his powerful nose, is enlisted in the search for a missing boy. But the quest is surrounded by mistruths and half-truths, plagued by creatures and demons drawn from both James’s imagination and an astonishing breadth of African folklores. Tracker imbues the narrative with his concerns and his fallibility, and we are set up, from the first page, to question the truth of his story.

But the finely-tuned world of inspirations is, like Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Le Guin’s Earthsea before it, the chief draw of Black Leopard, Red Wolf. For all those heady conceits that orbit around unreliability, sexuality, changeability, it’s the sheer delight with which James constructs his universe that renders it as uniquely vivid and moving as it is. Here, demons strike only from ceilings, vampires conduct electricity. Tracker forms a bond early on with a group of ghostly, orphaned children and comes to see them in many ways as his own. And here James’s instincts for character work shine a light on Tracker’s tenderness. “Say this about a child…” he tells the reader. “They cannot imagine a world where you do not love them, for what else should one do but love them?”

Yes, the action is often blow-by-blow. It sometimes overstays its welcome. And for all the complex ideas the text offers about trauma, sometimes the violence overwhelms more than it needs to. But those are small gripes, and in the end, that’s how this world is—the one inhabited by James’s characters, at least. “Truth is truth and I do not own it,” Tracker tells us. “It should make no difference to me who hears it, since him hearing the truth does not change it.”

Benjamin Van Voorhis

The first section of the novel is interesting, surreal, and has a modest cast of characters that we, the readers, can grasp and easily come to revile or appreciate. The culture of the Ku, Tracker’s own people, is painted somewhat uniquely. Their ideas about sexuality and sexual maturity, in particular, raise many questions—but this is all unfortunately scrapped once the second section arrives. In fact, a lot of the magic, characters, and descriptions that were initially fascinating are either stripped away or oversaturated with hefty explanation in order to introduce the ‘real’ story—which is gathering a group of random, clearly distrustful strangers to go and track down a mysterious boy.

The subsequent chapters contrast greatly with the first five, as we realize Tracker is narrating his story to his captor, which takes away some of the familiarity we had with him when he was much younger and just barely becoming ‘a man’. Section two also suffers from stunted pacing and dull imagery, since the suddenly enormous cast of characters are required to wander around a dreary city and engage in overloaded political dialogues. This forced entrance of so many new faces, as well as the ubiquitous justification of these individuals and their actions, are not only overwhelming, but unfortunately not exclusive to the second part. The remaining sections fall prey to these same characteristics, with too much telling and reminding—in case the reader wasn’t paying attention.

We spend over half the book trying to figure out why this child is so important, and what’s strange is that even the author seems to be aware of how slow and tedious the narrative is. Actual quotations from Tracker and other characters include: “I am lost. What are we talking about now?”, “I was suffering through boredom”, and even “Let us make the story quick” when the actual story was not quick, but very long-winded. Even the two characters who lend themselves to the book’s title are not nearly as important as we think. In fact, most things don’t appear to be as important as we want them to be, and by the end there isn’t as much satisfaction as I had hoped. The last chapter serves as a literal summary of what the whole ‘search for the boy’ quest was about, leaving both those pages and the reader wondering if there was perhaps too much happening at once. Overall, it’s a very tiring read.

S. N. Valadez

Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf was pitched as an African Game of Thrones. Some executive crafted this tagline out of desperation, hoping to coax a [white] Western market into giving a fantasy story by a black man rooted in African mythologies and oral storytelling tradition a fair chance. This tactic, however, does James’ writing a disservice. He is no George R. R. Martin and this is no Game of Thrones.

James seems to delight in playing with the tropes that writers like Martin hold sacred, twisting them into new possibilities that subvert internalized expectations. He takes readers on a traditional Hero’s Journey, rearranging the formulaic stages then wham! There’s a journey within a journey and the end you were led to expect is no more. He offers a Chosen One as motive for the journey, only to then warp the character so the Chosen One is wrong and a former Villain in the arguable right. The use of African mythology, playing up the horror of beings and gods unknown to western audiences—because of the way the West has exploited what it could and ignored the rest—makes the world-building feel original.

However, it takes until the 60% mark for the pacing to pick up, and the writing style comes across as pretentious, with language that twists into riddles and philosophical observances that detract from the action. No conversation can be had without being both profane and profound. If a list of trigger warnings had been included, most lay readers would be dissuaded from proceeding. Sexual imagery is treated as the ultimate form of description, to an extent I haven’t experienced since a college class about Freudian interpretation in literature. The wall of a cave looks like “a screaming face, or elephant legs, or a young girl’s slit,” while another wall, this time of a house, is “spotted with nipples made of clay.” More than once the smell of genitalia, including that of a child, is referenced, and the image of a man ejaculating “a spray of man milk that hit her face and knocked her back four steps” is one I could have done without. Perhaps I am more Victorian in mindset than I realized, but this reached a level of abase crudity that went beyond distasteful and was unnecessary to the progression of the plot and characterization.

Cen Hansel

Curated by Brandon Williams


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