Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

Tracker is known far and wide for his skills as a hunter: “He has a nose,” people say. Engaged to track down a mysterious boy who disappeared three years earlier, Tracker breaks his own rule of always working alone when he finds himself part of a group that comes together to search for the boy. The band is a hodgepodge, full of unusual characters with secrets of their own, including a shape-shifting man-animal known as Leopard.

As Tracker follows the boy’s scent–from one ancient city to another; into dense forests and across deep rivers–he and the band are set upon by creatures intent on destroying them. As he struggles to survive, Tracker starts to wonder: Who, really, is this boy? Why has he been missing for so long? Why do so many people want to keep Tracker from finding him? And perhaps the most important questions of all: Who is telling the truth, and who is lying?

This book… Where to start with this book?

Black Leopard, Red Wolf has drawn a lot of attention since before it was even written. Ever since the supremely talented Marlon James, hot off the back of a deserved Man Booker Prize win for the fantastic A Brief History of Seven Killings, announced that he was going to write the “African Game of Thrones”, literary fiction and genre fiction fans alike have been waiting to see just what the hell such a book would look like.

Well, it’s here now. And it’s certainly unique.

First off, the writing is gorgeous. That’s not something which should surprise anyone, but the book is filled with quotable passages, lush description, and charming dialogue. But it’s also pretty horrifying. There are some really, really dark scenes in this book, and James doesn’t hold back with them. There’s very little subtlety. There are rapes, gang rapes, torture, and a whole lot of murder. And these aren’t just your run-of-the-mill atrocities, James adds a lot of weird and disgusting fantasy flavourings.

In fact, the book kicks off with the death of a child. And that pretty much sets the tone for what follows.

‘The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.’

The story is told in the first person by our main character, Tracker – famous for his ability to find lost things and lost people. He is relating his story to a person known only as the “Inquisitor”, who wishes to know of Tracker’s search for a lost child. The child that is now dead.

Through Tracker’s tale, we travel through this incredible (and incredibly dangerous) fantasy world. James ties real-world inspiration and imagination together wonderfully. There are spider-monsters, monkey-monsters, vampire-like creatures, and shapeshifters – none of which feel odd or out of place.

The search for the boy is the main driving force of the story, but honestly I had a hard time connecting to this aspect of the book. Tracker is… well he’s ornery, apathetic, misogynistic, and his mouth is too big. His motivations for continuing with his search are unclear for most of the book and only gradually become clearer towards the end, once you have a more intimate knowledge of him as a character and what makes him tick. This does mean that for much of the novel it feels like Tracker is doing things Just Because. We need to find the boy because the boy needs to be found.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf requires a hell of a lot of trust in the author. The story takes a while to hit its stride (around 150 pages for me), and there are so many things in the beginning stages that I can see leading to people dropping the book. There’s a lot of rape, misogyny, kinda-sorta-bestiality, some homophobia, and other gruesome and horrible things. It’s a very dark and dangerous world, for all that it’s beautiful, and you really have to trust that James knows what he’s doing.

For the most part, I enjoyed the book. I found the pacing to be quite rough at the beginning and end, and I wish that we got to explore the supporting characters in a little more depth, but the parts I liked, I really liked. There are some scenes which have this wonderful frantic, nervous energy, and those are the ones I devoured.

I’ve seen a lot of buzz from some readers and reviewers suggesting that this book will revolutionise the fantasy genre, but to be honest I don’t know if I agree with that assessment.

I love James’ writing, and he’s proven himself a capable world-builder, but there’s so much in this book that I’ve already seen done (and done well) in other fantasy books. And while it’s exciting to see such a well-realized African-inspired setting, it’s important to remember that there are some really great African and African-American speculative fiction stories already out there. Black Leopard, Red Wolf may well spark a renewed interest in books like this (and I sincerely hope it does), but it would be insulting to suggest that it’s the first book of its kind.

To wrap this up… if you like the idea of a grimdark fantasy book with an African-inspired setting and a literary style, and you aren’t turned away by some of the content warnings in the above review, then Black Leopard, Red Wolf might be the book you’re looking for.

I received an advanced proof copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. Thank you to Hamish Hamilton for the review copy!

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