Black Leopard Red Wolf is a lush epic fantasy set in an enchanted and mythical Africa, filled with quests and magical beasts and vicious battles to the death. But it's also a much weirder, twistier book than the Game of Thrones parallels would su...
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a 2019 fantasy novel by writer Marlon James.
Marlon James (born 24 November 1970) is a Jamaican writer. He is the author of four novels: John Crow's Devil (2005), The Book of Night Women (2009), A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize, and Black Leopard, Red Wolf (2019). Now living in Minneapolis, US, James teaches literature at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is also a faculty lecturer at St. Francis College's Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing.
Awards and recognition
National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for The Book of Night Women– 2009
Dayton Literary Peace Prize (Fiction) for The Book of Night Women– 2010
Minnesota Book Award (Novel & Short Story) for The Book of Night Women– 2010
Silver Musgrave Medal from the Institute of Jamaica– 2013
National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for A Brief History of Seven Killings– 2014
Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction for A Brief History of Seven Killings– 2015
OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature (Fiction category winner), for A Brief History of Seven Killings– 2015
Man Booker Prize for Fiction for A Brief History of Seven Killings– 2015
Green Carnation Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings– 2015
National Book Award for Fiction finalist for Black Leopard, Red Wolf– 2019
Themes that the novel explores include the fundamentals of truths, the limits of power, the excesses of ambition, desire, Machiavellianism, duty and honor. James offers a clue to his underlying theme early on in the saga: “Truth changes shape just as the crocodile eats away the moon.”
James began writing the book during a sabbatical from his teaching job. In August 2016, after researching and fleshing out characters for a year, James had filled ten Moleskine notebooks with thoughts and notes, but did not have a plot. During a conversation with Melina Matsoukas, Matsoukas mentioned the television series The Affair to James, who drew inspiration from its Rashomon-style shifts in perspective. Each volume in the trilogy will reflect a different perspective on the same events. James completed approximately one hundred pages of the novel before the end of the fall semester in 2016, having begun writing at the beginning of the semester.
Before the book's release, James referred to the planned trilogy as "African Game of Thrones". He later revealed that the description was a joke.
Michael B. Jordan purchased the rights to produce a film adaptation of the novel in February 2019. James has expressed curiosity about a potential adaptation, and the challenges associated with one, saying that: "[... he thinks] our cinematic language of sci-fi and fantasy is still very European—particularly fantasy. And [his] book is not even remotely European.".
The review aggregator website Book Marks reported that 53% of critics gave the book a "rave" review, whilst 38% and 6% of the critics expressed "positive" or "mixed" impressions, respectively. Another 3% of the critics "panned" the book, based on a sample of 34 reviews.
Writing for NPR, Amal El-Mohtar said that comparisons to J.R.R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin: "[...] are wildly inaccurate to the experience of reading this book". She described the book as similar to "[...] more like if Toni Morrison had written Ovid's Metamorphoses".
In October 2019 Black Leopard, Red Wolf was named a finalist in the National Book Award for Fiction.
The book was named one of the top ten books of 2019 by the Washington Post.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf begins tersely. “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.” Even that much information may be too revealing: “I hear there is a queen in the south who kills the man who brings her bad news. So when I give words of the boy’s death, do I write my own death with it?” Voicing these anxieties under interrogation is Tracker. He’s a hunter, a mercenary, and it’s his journey in pursuit of that young boy that drives the hulking, exhausting first volume in Marlon James’s Dark Star trilogy.
The setting is a heady, fever-fabulated version of precolonial Africa, but who is the child? Some kind of a prince? Tracker is just one of a group of mercenaries vying with each other to recover him. He’s a fearsome fighter, vicious, endowed with a phenomenal nose that lets him sniff out poisoned drinks and enemies lurking miles away. He’s tireless too, sometimes yomping but more often drifting effortlessly across jungles and forests, rivers of ill repute, whole regions that are off limits to all but the most intrepid or rapacious traveller.
What a menagerie of creatures he encounters on his odyssey. Albinos, bush fairies, antiwitches, dirt mermaids, grass trolls, vampire lightning birds, alchemists, mad monkeys, malformed twins, cannibals, vampires, a leopard, slavers, queens, ghosts, sorcerers, comely eunuchs, lots of shapeshifting entities, lots and lots of prostitutes, and many characters – such as Giraffe Boy and Smoke Girl – who sound like poor-selling stuffed toys you might find at the back of Poundland.
A lot rests on Tracker. Not just the quest for the child, but the success of Black Leopard, Red Wolf itself. In a novel so dizzyingly populated, where geographies multiply and stack up, where the boundaries between the real, surreal and flat-out fantastic seem increasingly fluid, Tracker has to be a point of anchorage, someone to rely on and to care about. Like the emotionally scarred detectives in Scandinavian crime fiction, he’s often gruff and elusive. “I have always been an edge man,” he admits, “always on the coast, always by the boundary.” He claims he has no real self and that he has forgotten his original name. Later, he says he has “no guise … no look”.
It’s Heart of Darkness for video gamers, a colonial-era catalogue of cliches about Africa
Is this all a ruse? Early on we’re told: “Lie was truth and truth was a shifting, slithering thing”. Much of the novel is a curtain-play of rumour, cover-up, dissimulation. Characters flit between genders, shift from one colour to another, toggle between human and non-human status. Vivid episodes and heart-rending sequences turn out to be dreams – or nightmares. Yet, amid all the dense narrative foliage, there are shards that pierce:
I will admit, at least to my darkest soul, that there was nothing worse to be than in the middle of many souls, even souls that you might know, and still be lonely.
It’s easy to overlook these more reflective moments for James’s jam is violence – oodles and oodles of it. On the very first page, Tracker tells his jailer: “Your bread carries weevils, and your water carries the piss of ten and two guards and the goat they fuck for sport.” The next 600 pages amount to one big killing field, in which characters are slashed, garroted, mutilated and raped with abandon. It’s Heart of Darkness for video gamers, a colonial-era catalogue of cliches about Africa – a continent where life is cheap, the women sexual commodities, the inhabitants duplicitous, all values negotiable.
Following descriptions of an opium den so subtle they could have been taken from a Fu Manchu knock-off, James introduces us to Miss Wadada’s House of Pleasurable Goods and Services where the proprietoress let “a shape-shifter fuck one of her girls as a lion once, until he swatted her in a fit of ecstasy and snapped her neck”. The language is meant to shock, but strangely, given that James is often heralded as a Tarantino-like genius at choreographing bones, thugs and disharmony, everything feels plywood-brittle.
In another section, Tracker has a scrap with some hyenas: “I stabbed the first hyena in the neck. Pulled out and stabbed again. Stabbed again. Stabbed again. It fell. The hyena snapping at my feet moved in to bite. I swung my good hand and the knife sliced across her face, bursting one eye open. She squealed and ran off.” As scenes of horrific, flesh-flaying bodyshock go this ranks somewhere between the chopsocky in Kung Fu Panda and an Adrian Mole-scripted adaptation of Titus Andronicus. A small volume could be compiled from the novel’s cringeworthy prose and dialogue. Sometimes it evokes Beavis and Butt-Head: “He smelled like the crack of an old man’s ass”; “You should know the way of warriors, not bitchmen.” Sometimes a Monty Python parody of ancient myths: “He is Asanbosam, the flesh eater. His brother, Sasabonsam, is the bloodsucker. He is also the smart one.” And sometimes the setup to a poorly-received Comedy Store routine:
There we were, a man white like the moon, a Leopard who stood as a man, a man and a woman tall as a shrub, and a baby bigger than them both …
Black Leopard has been heralded as a dizzying, polymorphic, semantic swarm of a novel, one whose energies and excesses derive from the episteme-jolting, form-fracturing fecundity of African topographies (James even contributes a few maps he drew), and whose girth and rambunctiousness stick two fingers up to blue-stockinged literary realism.
How strange then that for long, bone-dry sections it reads as if James has never set foot in an African forest. Those in pursuit of visionary stories of mutation and metamorphosis, of dream poetics and colonial violence, would do better to turn to Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa (1910), Michel Leiris’s Phantom Africa (1934), or Palace of the Peacock (1960) by the Guyanese genius Wilson Harris.
James has described the project as his “African Game of Thrones”. With its spectacular pageantries (“Day riders with spears, in flowing red robes, black armour, and gold crowns topped with feathers”) and its undemanding dialogue, this will no doubt end up on subscription TV. Hopefully whoever adapts it will give the scant few female characters more depth and charisma. As for what’s next in the Dark Star trilogy, there are some intriguing hints and suggestions.
Tracker’s sexuality, like much else in Black Leopard, is all over the place; at one point, he reproaches an accomplice: “Everything in the world cooks down to two. Either- or, if-then, yes-no, night-day, good-bad. You all believe in twos so much I wonder if any of you can count to three.”
If James could go easier on the bloodletting and muscle-bound prose, choose subtlety and sensuousness over teenage-testosterone swagger, there’s still time for him to queer rather than pastiche the franchise fare he’s avariciously eyeing.
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