King and Monster: A Review of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a tome of a book.  Well over six hundred pages, this is a fantasy epic with a modern writing style.  This book is not a quick read.  It is dense, and every page is packed with beautiful prose, fascinating characters, and different worlds.  This is the type of book that transports you easily and refuses to let you go, making sure you dwell in the world it is building.  The density of the novel does not end up being a drawback, and you can feel the journey the characters have taken by the time you close it on page six hundred twenty.  This is the kind of density that submerges you fully in the narrative, and transports you to a world so unlike other mainstream fantasy.  This review will not do the novel justice.  Only reading it can.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is written by Marlon James, a Jamaican-American author currently living in Minneapolis.  This is his fourth novel, and the beginning of a new trilogy, and his mastery of writing and language shines after years of honing his craft.  James teaches between writing at Macalester College in Minneapolis, while also serving as a faculty lecturer in the St. Francis College MFA program.  He also gave the seventh annual Tolkien Speech at Pembroke College in Oxford in February of this year.  Originally raised in Kingston, his parents were both involved in law enforcement.  His mother became a police detective, and his father left the Jamaican police to become a lawyer.  James eventually fled Jamaica due to the country’s declining economy and a rise in homophobic violence.  His fears and experiences have all informed his work and the worlds he invites readers to explore.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf takes place in an unnamed land, a sort of fictionalized Africa taking inspiration from cultures all over the continent and containing various environments.  The land is split between the North and the South kingdoms, engaged in a long-running and uneasy stalemate, each wanting to conquer the other but not confident they can win.  The various cities and cultures all maintain a certain of autonomy due to this, with some more like city-states.  Life in this land can be harsh and violent.  Slavery, while not universal, is not uncommon.  Violence is an expected part of life and never seems to end, even if the land is technically at peace.  Even without war, cities and dangerous places and cultures clash in rivalry.  The kings of both kingdoms mostly stay out of the affairs and feuds of their lands.  This is also a land where the supernatural thrives, in part due to people’s disbelief.  There are monsters and magic in the world, never hiding, but always just out of sight.  This is a land where the monsters are truly monstrous, and where folklore can never accurately warn of the danger.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is told almost entirely from the first-person point-of-view of Tracker, our main character.  Tracker is, like his name suggests, a tracker, though of people and not animals.  He operates as a mercenary, searching for and retrieving lost of kidnapped people.  Born with a preternatural nose, once Tracker knows a person’s smell, he can follow them to the ends of the earth without fail.  Their scent never disappears as long as they live.  It is often said that he has a nose, something that always makes Tracker wonder who is saying this.  He is a witty and violent character, often cursing the gods and people, but never failing in the tasks he is hired to complete.  Parts of life are central to the mysteries of the novel, so I will not spoil much more.  But Tracker is a deeply flawed, deeply scarred individual, whose personal quest sees him looking to overcome his anger and his fear.  Tracker, unlike most fantasy protagonists, is also gay, something that is just accepted as a fact of his character.  Marlon James never once threatens to afflict Tracer with a stereotype.

The novel is told in a frame narrative, with Tracker in the present telling the story as it happened in the past.  The book begins by telling us that Tracker was hired to find a boy.  He found him, then lost him, found him again, and lost him again.  In the present, Tracker now sits in jail and is interrogated by an Inquisitor of the king trying to obtain the entire story.  Tracker begins his tale with his childhood and leaving home, then finding a new home and the mercenary know only as Leopard.  Leopard teaches Tracker how to fight, how to survive, and how to enjoy life.  Tracker’s tales are not short or quick, and he makes sure we are entrenched in his upbringing before jumping ahead to encountering Leopard again and the fateful task.  Giving away too much of the plot would result in major spoilers, but Tracker accepts the job after learning a partial truth about the boy.  Normally a lone operative, he is forced to team with others in the quest, journeys across the land and through several cities in his search, and encounters true evil along the way.

Tracker is far from the only character of the novel, although he is the only one to tell us his story.  Leopard, the other titular character, is just as major and acts as a catalyst for Tracker’s adventures.  Leopard is an actual leopard with the ability to shapeshift into the form of a man and back with no more than a though.  Like a cat, he is fleeting and his mood changes quickly.  Leopard is Tracker’s oldest companion, friend, and lover, but the two do not fully understand each other.  There is also Sadogo, a member of the giant race called Ogo, although Sadogo resents the designation.  Ogos are taller than any man, possessing supernatural strength and endurance and a thirst for violence which runs in their blood.  Before the start of the story, Sadogo worked as a gladiator and later executioner.  Violence was all he knew, but sought something more.  Then there is Mossi, a swordsman hailing from the Middle East and now living in the North Kingdom.  He joins the group part way through the story after a chance encounter with Tracker and a supernatural enemy.  While he originally gets on Tracker’s nerves, he becomes the first man Tracker feels true romance for.  The novel contains many more characters, all memorable.  It would be impossible to list them all here and do them justice.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is an amazing work of literature which is unfairly compared to the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin.  The comparisons do serve as a form of shorthand when trying to describe the novel to someone who unfamiliar with the subject or the author.  But this is not a European fantasy, and only loosely shares the same connective tissue.  James has written the kind of novel rarely seen in mainstream fantasy.  A setting based on African, a black and gay protagonist, and a style of unique style of writing.  His novel is an amazing, transportive read, and is only the first book in a planned trilogy, the Dark Star Trilogy.  We can expect to see more of the fantastic world Marlon James built.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 4 weeks

Next on the List: Tiamat’s Wrath, by James S. A. Corey

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