Black Leopard, Red Wolf – by Marlon James

Black Leopard, Red Wolf has been commonly advertised as “an African Game Of Thrones“. Now, the African setting is indisputable. As for the comparison with A Game Of Thrones – technically, I admit I can see some similarities, after all they both belong to the fantasy genre, both feature sex and violence, and, well, both are novels that belong to a series. Also, they both exist, right? But seriously, it takes very few seconds of reading to figure out the two works are very different in style, scope, target audience. Let’s see what we’re actually talking about.

Title: Black Leopard, Red Wolf

Author: Marlon James

Publisher: Riverhead Books

Publication Date: 5 February 2019

Genre: Fantasy

Pages: 620

Standalone or Series: First book of the Dark Star Trilogy

Synopsis: Tracker is known far and wild for his prodigious sense of smell that makes him excellent at the very job after which he’s named. Hired to track down a mysterious child, he’s forced to work with a motley crew of mercenaries, magical creatures, and former lovers often at odds with each other. Travelling to ancient cities and through the jungle, the party meets all sorts of creature set on destroying them, and Tracker starts to wonder who really is this boy, whose existence is apparently playing a key role in some ruthless political machination way beyond his reach.

Analysis: The story is told in first person by the main character, who appears to be captive and under interrogation. The narration moves back and forwards between brief but recurring references to the framing device, and Tracker’s verbose confession, which often comes with digressions and additional embedded stories. All this is told in a rich, bathetic prose that combines lyrical and fable-like tones with crude descriptions, at times adopting informal speech patterns and synthactical structures inspired to West African Pidgin English.

The setting is, as mentioned, inspired to Africa, and more specifically to an image of precolonial Africa that freely blends history and myth. James draws from folklore to build a varied ensemble of mythical creatures and magical phenomena; it must be noted how none of these are treated as truly exceptional in-universe; quite the opposite, the existence of magic and of supernatural creatures are seen as a given, their encounters as commonplace; for instance, Tracker’s first main love interest Leopard is a shapeshifter, which is no special cause of surprise; venturing into the land of the dead is seen as a dangerous adventure, but not truly exceptional. There are no real boundaries between the mythical and the mundane, which project the entire world in a distant, dangerously enchanted dimension.

Our protagonist is a morally grey character; he’s brutal and unpleasant, often displaying a cynical and misogynistic attitude, but he’s also occasionally driven by higher principles. He makes a living as a mercenary, however he appears to have mixed feelings towards his violent lifestyle; he often associates with and works for unsavoury people, but he makes a point to underline his hatred for slavers and goes out of his way to protect outcast children. In his nomadic, unrooted life he confusedly seeks for affection and belonging, but it all comes in the shape of vigorous fucking and fighting and hurting each other. Talking about which – Tracker is open about his sexuality, and while he has some encounters with women, he does strongly favour men, and for all his hypermasculine lifestyle and attitude, his identity is oddly defined within the framework of his culture.

Tracker is also very clearly not a reliable narrator, neither more trustworthy are the other characters who at times are called to tell their stories. The result is a tapestry of dubious and even mutually contradictory truths. The novel opens with the blunt statement that “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know“, which is immediately disproven by the number of pages ahead; all through the book, we repeatedly meet appeals to truth, but in the end the only truth appears to be whatever story is accepted as such. Tracker’s voice is occasionally contrasted with written recounts or poetic renditions of the events, but none appear more solid, just a different format.

James’s writing surely effective at depicting Tracker’s chaotic and brutal experiences, as well as being reminiscent of the oral traditions of old; it does not, however, do clarity a good service, often requiring the reader an effort to figure out what’s going on. The fact that the author tends to omit names and descriptions in places where one would normally expect them doesn’t make things any easier either, and the result is aesthetically powerful, but semantically opaque and confusing. Marlon James seems indeed less concerned with keeping us hooked to a discernible plot, and more interested in carrying us around a magnificent and terrifying world, sharing Tracker’s jaded curiosity and unresolved questioning.

Conclusions & Recommendations: I have mixed feelings about this book: on the one hand, I can’t help but admire the author’s talent and creativity, on the other hand I can’t entirely shake the feeling that its obscurity was ramped up on purpose to frustrate the reader. No matter how you see it, the comparison to A Game Of Thrones does this work a real disservice – because people looking for sheer entertaining storytelling, which is Martin’s best selling point, aren’t likely to enjoy this book, people who do love a more artsy and challenging style might end up overlooking it, and those who, like me, may like both things at different moment do not necessarily enjoy misguiding advertising. All in all, it’s a book I’d cautiously suggest to those who love fantasy based on non-western traditions, and who either appreciate or don’t mind a more challenging writing style. It’s also a perfect book to suggest to – or physically throw at – those who insist that fantasy is childish and simplistic, just in case you need to make a point.

Content Warning: Gore – Violence – Death – Rape – Torture – Child abuse – Slavery – Cannibalism – Sexism – Homophobia – Child death

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