If you encounter any discussion of Man Booker1 prize-winner Marlon James’s recent fantasy novel, you will hear two things: one, that it’s a sort of Game of Thrones set in Africa, and two, that the description doesn’t really do justice to it. In any case, the noteworthy novel represents the first part of The Dark Star Trilogy.
It’s a very dark start, with frequent graphic violence, sex, and sexual violence.
Title: Black Leopard, Red Wolf
Author: Marlon James
First published February 2019
A Tracker tells an inquisitor a lengthy story of his life, his efforts to locate an abducted child, and the bizarre adventures and political intrigue that he and his companions encounter along the way.
In the same way that Westeros resembles a mythic Renaissance England and Middle Earth, a mythic, ancient Europe, this novel takes place in a mythic Africa. The most sinister necromancers practice “White Science”—you know, instead of “Black Magic.” Like the orientation of his maps, James wants to invert a few conventions of fantasy.
The book contains a number of exceptional stories within its rambling narrative, and a conclusion that successfully brings a number of disparate elements together. One such story addresses the history of Sadogo, one of Tracker’s companions. It reads a little like a literate man’s take on Robert E. Howard, with the violence amplified. Nevertheless, I felt I could understand Sadogo’s feelings and motivations, distant though the character may be from my experience.
Other readers will find different points of interest.
This is not an easy book to read. James has tremendous gifts as a prose stylist, but he tells the story in a tortuous, complex way, and the story involves a protagonist who isn’t especially invested in this particular job, and who begins by telling us the child they seek has died. I didn’t feel engaged until about 200 pages in, and, while I found some portions excellent, I encountered others as difficult slogging with too little payoff. I abandoned reading A Song of Ice and Fire after four novels. I may not pick up the next book in this series.
Originality: 5/6 Even when the tropes feel familiar, the novel takes them in some other direction. For example: the intrigues of nobles play an important role in the plot. However, they’re nobles from cultures little-seen in English-language fantasy, and we only see their machinations from the perspective of the Tracker and his associates.
Imagery: 5/6 James can describe things with graphic detail. His physical geography feels incomplete, perhaps because of the manner in which the characters sometimes transit to distant destinations through both magic and narrative contrivances.
James or Tracker also really likes his buttocks-related imagery.
Story: 4/6 I found portions of this story extremely difficult to follow. Perhaps I am missing something.
Emotional Response: 5/6
Editing: 5/6 Call this a compromise between the score I’d give the book for the editing of prose style and the score I’d give for editing of the plot.
Overall: 5/6 Whether they like the novel or not, readers will have to admit that James has given us something decidedly different in the fantasy genre.
Few books I’ve read this year so perfectly bring to mind the phrase, “Not for all tastes.”
In total, Black Leopard, Red Wolf receives 34/42
1. He took the award for A Brief History of Seven Killings.