Described by James as an “African Game of Thrones”, this huge fantasy novel features maps, monsters and murders aplenty. Narrator/mercenary Tracker tries to hunt down a mysterious missing boy in a brutal, pre-colonial, mythical version of Africa, where rape and torture are de rigueur, resulting in a hard, almost nihilistic read. Still, James is inventive with his depictions of violence and it would make for a great TV series.
The ambition of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is beyond question. Announced as the first volume of the “Dark Star Trilogy”, it is in itself a big book and one that is at considerable pains to create its own unique world... But reading it can often be a bit of a slog, to be frank. Compared to the challenge of contemporary Irish fiction that embraces the heritage of James Joyce, there is nothing very syntactically complex going on on the page, but as our protagonist, Tracker, goes at it again with his axes it can be hard to work up much enthusiasm for the outcome of the fight... On the evidence of this first volume, James has embarked on a bold undertaking: placing a very 21st century attitude to how we relate tolerantly to one another as men and women within a brutal mythic world as a way of suggesting that this is how human lives should always have been lived. The practical question to ask is how many readers will have patience with his method.
A common critique of most long books is that they could shed a few hundred pages and be the better for it. You could say the same of Black Leopard, Red Wolf. The fight scenes are superbly narrated, but they can sometimes seem interminable; the dialogue is witty, but it can feel repetitive. This unusual book’s strength is the seriousness of its subject matter... With this daring work, James has expanded the scope of the contemporary novel. And it is fitting that this deracinated African should find inspiration in African oral tradition.
At 620 pages it’s a big book, but also one of the bravest and boldest pieces of contemporary fiction I’ve read in years. I first encountered James’ striking, uncompromising voice with Seven Killings and this same, often abrasive directness turbo-powers his new “literary fantasy” without a single lapse in energy or nerve.
Who knows what the judges will make of this gleeful and wholehearted leap into genre fiction: Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a vivid, bloody fantasy epic, playing out over more than 600 pages, complete with the sort of maps Tolkien would be proud of. But where Tolkien was inspired by English folklore and Norse myth, James takes us into phantasmagorical pre-colonial African. He draws on the continent’s own tradition of legends and monsters – from the scaly, flesh-eating Asanbosam to the vampiric “lightning bird” Ipundulu – as well as making up his own, and conjures into life nightmarish forests and thriving metropolises alike.
There is much to revel in, much to admire. But unlike many of the ancient stories, there is a lack of momentum. We know the hook at the start, but too much of the plot is “this happened… and then this happened… and then this happened”... It is a kind of questless quest. Perhaps the major problem is that Tracker is our “window” into the sprawl of tales, and yet he remains a character with whom it is difficult to empathise. Nor does the reader care for the quarry they seek. Still: good monsters.
In epic fantasy the action tends to play out against a backdrop of an overarching conflict between good and evil. There is little of that traditional clarity in the “Dark Star Trilogy” and the interlocutor himself observes that “Tracker’s account continues to perplex even those of uncommon mind”. The drama lies not in good characters and bad characters facing off in a straightforward struggle for supremacy: it lies in the slippery and more complex contest of narrative and storytelling that unfolds. The question comes down not to whose character is good or evil, but to whose narrative is the most compelling?
In recent years, mythology has often been used to explain away age-old inequalities. Meanwhile, Hollywood has been strip-mining the Marvel, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings universes to the point where nothing fertile remains. James offers fresh vistas, fresh perspectives, fresh blood — it’s no surprise that the film is already in the works. The imagery is breathtaking and the dialogue whip-smart, but it’s not flawless; it doesn’t engage the emotions quite as much as the senses. It left me dazzled, perplexed and a bit traumatised — but I suspect that was precisely what James intended.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a great thick bubbling feijoada of African myth and folklore... Threaded through all this, as you’d expect from a writer of James’s subtlety and thoughtfulness, is a probing but not preachy consideration of parenthood and masculinity, of the slave-economy and patrilineal patriarchy... James is especially good at cinematic violence delivered blow by sanguinary blow, and his vivid prose drives it along even when, from time to time, you’ll be consulting the crib sheet at the front to remind yourself which particular winged demon is currently biting off faces.
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...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.
The overall feel is earthy, ribald and very funny, more Rabelais than Tarantino, and this suits the underlying impetus of the novel perfectly. But what is that impetus? Is there some grand moral edifice concealed beneath the myth-making, as in Tolkien’s hierarchical and drearily undemocratic world, or is the aim simply to entertain and provoke some new thinking about what we mean when we talk about Africa?...The official purpose of this quest is to find a missing child, but there is so much more to it than that, and this is where things get complicated. On his meandering journey, accompanied by a motley crew of companions, Tracker discovers that there can be no such thing as a straightforward outcome... It is what happens on the way that matters — and this in itself is strangely satisfying. Black Leopard Red Wolf is the first in a proposed trio entitled The Dark Star Trilogy. As a lifelong fantasy-fiction sceptic, I can honestly say I cannot wait for the next instalment.
Yet the excitement generated by the novel’s thickets of X-rated Tolkienese tends to be more stop-start than page-turning... as a reading experience, it has a sink-or-swim quality, partly because of the dazzling profusion of names and creatures, coupled with James’s purist avoidance of hand-holding devices like speech tags... Still, it’s testament to the novel’s crazy vitality that when it ends with a teaser for the sequel — by the sounds of it, a kind of Rashomon-like retread of events from the witch’s point of view — you’re left with a whetted appetite rather than groaning with surfeit
The vigorous, bathetic prose veers from the heightened style of Greek epics to fabricated African languages to syntactic traces of West African pidgin and Caribbean patois. To call this novel original doesn’t do justice to such a phantasmagoric work of art. People die then die again. A child consists of blue smoke. Another one is shaped like a ball with no legs. There are tiny people, Yumboes, who are less than a foot tall...James has thrown African cultures, mythologies, religions, customs, histories, rituals, world-views and topographies into the mighty cauldron of his imagination to create a work of literary magic.
Tucked away in these 600-plus pages are smart genre-bending ideas... his characters have about as much interior life as a set of clothes pegs... Like A Brief History of Seven Killings, this novel is fiercely ambitious and full of dreamlike shifts between vividness and vagueness. However, whereas the earlier novel had a real event underlying its baroque layers of fantasy, here there is nothing solid tethering James’s imagination. Some fans of the genre may enjoy it for precisely that reason, relishing the opportunity to lose themselves in a dark new fictional world. Others will find it a self-indulgent mess...
ferociously gripping epic... he’s broken fresh ground for future fantasy writers... James builds an extraordinary and unforgettable world, even though the narrative sometimes feels overpowered, the shifts almost too much to take in over one reading... If James had stuck only with the blood-tingling tale of a stirring adventure in breathtaking new territory, he would have accomplished much. But this is Tracker’s story, and what breathes life into it is that he is never solely a mercenary, never sure, like most of us, where he stands on the subject of good and evil... a game-changing modern fantasy classic...
The novel is a delirious smoothie of cultural influences and tributes, from Kurosawa films to superhero comics to the seminal work of the 1930s Nigerian writer D.O. Fagunwa, whose Forest of a Thousand Daemons was the first novel published in the Yoruba language. (I’m pretty sure I even caught a whiff of Robert Browning at one point.)...James isn’t an inhabitant of the fantasy genre intent on blowing up its conventions, the way George R.R. Martin was in 1996, when he published Game of Thrones and shocked readers by killing off the novel’s apparent hero. If anything, James seems to view Black Leopard, Red Wolf as a chance to gleefully embrace a host of established pop tropes... The novel reshapes the way you read it as you go along. Like all epic fantasy, it builds a world out of words, and the way those words fit together is part of the distinctive architecture of that world.
The oft-repeated elevator pitch on Black Leopard Red Wolf, the buzzy new novel from Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James, is that it’s the African Game of Thrones... To a certain extent, the comparison holds. 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 suggest... But while I may respect James’s choice as a critic, as a reader, I found much of Black Leopard to be a slog. It’s difficult to push through page after page of beautiful sentences — and James’s sentences really are stunning — that are organized specifically to avoid telling you who is doing what or why and why you should care.
James’ new book, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, is a clear-cut success. The first in his Dark Star trilogy introduces readers to a robust and enthralling ancient African world. Black Leopard, Red Wolf has all of the accoutrements and tools necessary for quickly grasping the world as written. A long list of “Those Who Appear In This Account” at the front and a series of maps at section breaks are excellent and usable reference points that both seasoned fantasy readers and converts to the genre, enticed by James’ literary fiction pedigree, will find handy... A trilogy-opener has the difficult job of being a compelling novel in its own right while preparing for what will follow. Black Leopard, Red Wolf clears both bars with ease.
James conjures the literary equivalent of a Marvel Comics universe — filled with dizzying, magpie references to old movies and recent TV, ancient myths and classic comic books, and fused into something new and startling by his gifts for language and sheer inventiveness... James is such a nimble and fluent writer that such references never threaten to devolve into pretentious postmodern exercises. Even when he is nestling one tale within another like Russian dolls that underscore the provisional nature of storytelling (and the Rashomon-like ways in which we remember), he is giving us a gripping, action-packed narrative. What the novel could have used is a little judicious pruning: As in superhero movies, the action sometimes assumes a predictable, episodic rhythm — one violent, bravura showdown after another, strung together by interludes of travel and efforts to regroup and connect the dots.
Y’all, Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a miracle. It’s a gift from Anansi himself. This book. This book. THIS BOOK.
Dead. I’m dead. I have died. It is so good it killed me. Murdered by my own ARC. Please bury me in my To Read pile.... Fantasy has exploded with diversity in recent years, especially in Young Adult fiction. With epic fantasy, the tide is turning more slowly, but QPOC authors are turning the stodgy old subgenre inside out. If Charles R. Saunders’ Imaro series opened the door to new ways of telling epic fantasy, and N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy leapt over the threshold, then Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf just ripped the whole damn door off its hinges.