FINALIST FOR THE 2019 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD The New York Times Bestseller Named a Best Book of 2019 by The Wall Street Journal, TIME, NPR, GQ, Vogue, and The Washington Post "A fantasy world as well-realized as anything Tolkien made." —Neil Gaiman "Gripping, action-packed....The literary equivalent of a Marvel Comics universe." —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times The epic novel, an African Game of Thrones , from the Man Booker Prize-winning author of A Brief History of Seven Killings In the stunning first novel in Marlon James's Dark Star trilogy, myth, fantasy, and history come together to explore what happens when a mercenary is hired to find a missing child. 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? Drawing from African history and mythology and his own rich imagination, Marlon James has written a novel unlike anything that's come before it: a saga of breathtaking adventure that's also an ambitious, involving read. Defying categorization and full of unforgettable characters, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is both surprising and profound as it explores the fundamentals of truth, the limits of power, and our need to understand them both.
I listened to the audiobook while following along on Kindle, and this was a perfect combo for me. The narrator, Dion Graham, is very talented and delivers the story perfectly, but the constantly changing time line makes following it on audio problematic. Also, there are a lot of characters to keep track of, and seeing their names in print helped to solidify them for me, especially where the names were similar. The first part of the book is more difficult, I thought, but then it settles into its own rhythm, and you can sit back and enjoy the ride. And buckle up because it's going to really take off - the pace is fast and furious in places. There is anger here, and violence that will make your head snap back. It is almost too descriptive. It gets under your skin, and I think that is intentional. Author Louise Erdrich has the best blurb that I have read: “This book begins like a fever dream and merges into world upon world of deadly fairy tales rich with political magic. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a fabulous cascade of storytelling. Sink right in. I guarantee you will be swept downstream.”
In my time I’ve devoured all three genres, so I thought it was just my cup of tea. Unfortunately, in BLRW, tea is not served. Devouring it is, but it’s not the reader who’s doing the devouring. The story is told by Red Wolf (although he is called “Tracker” throughout). Black Leopard, who can transform at will between man and beast, is his friend--at least sometimes. Leopard and Tracker spend much of their time hunting for a lost boy, and have many perilous adventures along the way. Tracker has two axes and Leopard is an accomplished archer, and the people they meet are soon apprised of their skills.
Is it a fantasy? Well, there are witches, and winged creatures, and magical doors, and thrones. There’s a map of lands visited. It is filled with fantastical characters: Sadogo the sad giant,
Giraffe Boy, Smoke Girl, gremlins, a smart buffalo, vampires, flesh-eating monsters. But this tale is far darker than the darkest fairy tale. Fantasies for me suggest rich imaginings from the likes of Neil Gaiman, JK Rowling, Madeleine Engle, Ursula LeGuin. Gentle, wise narrators, often women. Not in this book.
Is it a folk tale? Well, it appears to take place in a continent like Africa, and there are talking animals. But there doesn’t seem to be a lesson to be learned.
Maybe it’s an allegory. Wolf loses an eye at one point, suggesting limited insight. White Scientists are the “darkest of the necromancers.” Slavery figures in the story. Sex figures in the story, somewhat explicit. There are dark portents of future threats from the West.
But here’s what it is: a cornucopia of killing. Disabled children and lovers are murdered. Countless descriptions of physical injury, one on one, pow, bang, right where it hurts, like the scenes in a comic book repeated endlessly, Batman, Superman, the Green whoever he is, but here there’s no sense of fighting evil. Like the samurai battles in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, fighting so intense it rises from the ground.
I usually race through novels. It took me months to read BLRW, but I was determined. Fortunately, in the last chapter, there’s a summary of everything that has gone on. Very helpful. Also in this final chapter, Tracker ruminates:
“Maybe this was how all stories end, the ones with true women and men, true bodies falling into wounding and death, and with real blood spilled. And maybe this is why the great stories we told are so different. Because we tell stories to live, and that sort of story needs a purpose, so that sort of story must be a lie. Because at the end of a true story, there is nothing but waste.”
This is a story without hope--not even a tiny sliver of it. We humans may be barbarians, but isn’t there, just sometimes, a brief shower of grace upon us? An occasional moment of redemption?
For the first two chapters I was worried. Marlon James jumps around in time as he introduces Tracker's framing story, pressing the experimental line. The next couple bring clarity, and after that I got what I came for. You've heard of Afro-Futurism? This is full on Afro-Fantasy. The author bought a truckload of African myths and legends, dumped them out in his yard and sifted through them for the best stuff - or maybe he used all of it? Tracker's world is brimful of bizarre creatures, spirits and spells, all living side by side and taking each others' existence for granted. It's only the young and inexperienced in this story who are surprised by anything they encounter. Me on the other hand, I had no idea what he would be introducing next. Knowing all the while that he wasn't just making it up, that all of this had some basis in actual African legend, gave it more substance and bite than just a tour of one author's wild imagination. If Africa had a fantasy market that started at the same time and paralleled what Tolkien began, suddenly we have this view into where it would be today, like it was never missing.
If it was just inventive world-building, that would not be enough. Tracker is at the centre of the story, and he's one of the most deeply drawn characters I've seen in a fantasy novel. Severian of Gene Wolfe's New Sun books is the only one who readily comes to mind that compares. The various others he travels with are also given time and attention, with scarcely anyone being mentioned who doesn't then have a backstory provided. Dialogue is brilliant and quotable. James makes good use of his map; there's no starting point in this corner, ending point in that opposite corner. Throughout the book we are jumping around, or taking voyages through random swathes, with references to more beyond the borders. The narrative is largely chronological, guided by the framing tale, but there are also some fantastic nested stories, tales about people who are telling tales about other people. James proves himself a master at avoiding the 'infodump' problem, providing information at the most appropriate time when it's needed, but holding back anything that will have greater impact later in its proper place. No one will ever say this novel could use more action. The only thing I can fault him for is missing dialogue tags in rapid fire conversations, where I think even he lost track of who was speaking a couple of times.
A couple of cautions: the degree of violence is perhaps the one thing this has in common with Game of Thrones, and there's scarcely a page lacking a sexual reference. Hopefully that doesn't hold you back. I've yet to read the titanic force that is N.K. Jamieson, but Marlon James has at least contributed toward the beginning of another new era in fantasy fiction. If his world does not get a Hugo nomination, there is something wrong with ours.
After I bought the book, I kept seeing more and more blurbs and review about it on social media. Apparently I bought a book that had a lot of media buzz going for it. So I eagerly started reading.
Right from the start I realized what an incoherent mess of a book this is. None of the characters are likable. No one can just have a conversation. Every verbal exchange is a volly of insults and threats. Wading through these to find an ounce of meaning is exhausting.
The book is divided into 6 sections. Section one was terrible. Sections 2 and 3 began to get interesting. Section 4 was by far the best section for me. I loved the description of the city in the trees, and all it's wonders and horrors. Section 5 and 6 were back to terrible and incomprehensible. Although I wanted to finish the book, by the last 10 pages I was begging for it to be over.
Yes there is plenty of sex and violence in this book. That did not bother me at all. It was the way in which the story was told. If we had a character to root for, maybe it would have been better, but I don't think so. Leave out all the circular arguments and insults and the story would be much shorter and much better.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is told from the point of view of Tracker, the red wolf of the title, a man who can follow people by their scent, no matter how far away they are or how old the scent. He becomes part of a group hired to find a boy kidnapped three years earlier, brought in by his friend (if Tracker can be said to have friends) a were-leopard. But what appears to be the standard set up of a group of mis-matched outsiders going on a quest together is set on its head almost immediately. What follows, and what precedes this beginning, is confusing, maddening, explicitly violent and outrageously imaginative.
This novel is based in an African past much like how countless fantasy novels are based in a sort of medieval Europe, and there are clear references to classic fantasy novels. Here, Tolkien's Lothlorien is reimagined in a horrifying way, faithful companions are as trustworthy as strangers and the very thing these companions are searching for may not be what it seems. I very much loved the sad, yet murderous giant (who gets angry at being called a giant), the wise buffalo, and an odd group of abandoned children who find refuge together.
James has stated that each book of the trilogy will be told from the point of view of a different character, so the picture created by Tracker is frustratingly incomplete. Despite my lack of interest in this genre and utter boredom with battles and magical creatures, I suspect I'll be reading the next books in the trilogy just to see how James fits the stories of the other characters together to build a complete tale.
Some history: I really, really want to be into Marlon James, but am now oh-for-two.
I couldn't get A Brief History of Seven Killings to work for me. But then, Black Leopard Red Wolf came along. A book stuffed full of African myths and legends, mysticism and fantasy, "more immersive than Tolkien" was intriguing.
I think it's safe to say this is a dark and raw book with a highly unlikeable narrator. There is a lot of graphic, sex and violence, often together. By a lot, I mean like unavoidable, as in on pretty much every page, and it's just numbing after awhile.
I don't want to ever be numb to sexualized violence for the sake of a 'challenging' story that at its root is supposed to be entertaining.
I've found Marlon James an intriguing author in concept, because he's billed as sort of a complex, challenging genius to high culture critical acclaim. For me, his writing is obtuse, and his stories difficult and dense, which isn't the same thing.
It begins with a leopard.
And a witch.”
“The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.”
This kicks off the first of an epic fantasy trilogy by Booker Prize-winning author, Marlon James. It follows the adventures of Tracker, “He has a nose,” a young man, who is engaged to track down a boy, who was kidnapped. He normally works alone but ends up, with a band of misfits, with unusual powers, including the enigmatic Leopard, the shape-shifting creature, that Tracker forms a tumultuous relationship with.
James has done his homework here, weaving African history and mythology, into this beefy narrative, teamed up with his own impressive imagination. There is also excessive violence and profanity, so the reader should keep this in mind. I found it to be unnecessarily verbose at times, meandering, and there is some repetition, but overall this was a promising beginning, by a very fine writer.
I love this description of the pre-colonial, African world the author has created, from the NY Times review: it "feels like a place mapped by Gabriel Garcia Lorca and Hieronymous Bosch with an assist from Salvador Dali. It's a magical and sometimes beautiful place . . ." There are all sorts of wild creatures, e.g., winged lightning vampires, "white scientists" who experimentally create nightmarish creatures, shape shifters, and unusually featured children like Giraffe Boy and Smoke Girl, whom Tracker takes under his wing. There also is a fair amount of sex (usually homosexual) and romance (ditto). I'm trying to think how to say this - it's not dwelt on or belabored or described in excessive detail; it's just one more plot element, one more part of Tracker's life, and the lives of other characters.
"When kings fall they fall on top of us.”
“I am content with much. This world never gives me anything, and yet I have everything I want.”
“He is my friend.” “Nobody ever gets betrayed by their enemy.”
As said in Mamie's excellent review that you can find on the book page, this could've been trimmed by 100 or more pages. But it's hard to quarrel with the flow of James' writing.
Oof= the expression I used the most while reading.
*Warning* foul language is used to express some of my feelings.
I am unsure how to express how I completely feel about this book. Did it have strong good aspects that made me feel something in this cold dark heart of mine, you bet there was. Was it happy jolly feelings? No. If you are searching for an easy feel-good novel run, run far away because this book is like an alternate reality of hell. This world that Tracker lives in is hell the experiences that many of the characters have faced important and not are atrocious brutal, shocking, and graphic. This is one of the most fucked up books I have ever read I can and will say that.
Personally I respect authors who A. have the ability to write graphically or brutally well B. who have the balls to do so considering not many people have the ability to read dark graphic novels. Big applauds to this. I do feel that as some aspects became common and continuous any shock value got thrown to the winds. Through most of the story I expected the worse and typically got it at the level I expected it was made worse by the vivid descriptions.
The plot was not important it's basically not even there none of the characters gave a shit about the boy they were supposed to find. Some of the descriptive languages used such as describing a wall as a woman tits I found to be unnecessarily. I also, for the most part, didn't give a shit about most of the many shitty characters though I can't say I hated them all. I cared more about the random "people" thrown in to prove how shitty the world was as well as the individuals in it. Women throughout were either complete dickbags or weak/and or severely abused bags of boney corpses.
I loved how the hyena scene fucked me up, I find that most stories that are trying to pull a dark fast one on me fail. I had to put the book down and stare at a wall for a bit though my spidey senses told me to grab a glass of wine for myself as a part of myself knew shit was gonna get real fucked up before it got fucked up.
Fun fact or game I had while reading was to not distinctively react to any of the really "oof" parts when I would read before some of my classes started. I can say for the most part I won as I never noticed anyone give me the "wtf is her problem" look. I would recommend giving that a try if you are thinking of picking up this book.
Overall I didn't hate it but I didn't love it that's all I can really say right now other than I would not recommend this book to most people. I don't think many individuals would have the patience needed to drag their sorry ass through this really overly complexly worded novel. Alas if you are able to you are in for a sickening glass filled chocolate bar treat, devour it up if you dare.
Some of the following are a few trigger warnings if you don't want to go in blind as I did: the rape of humans to humans, animals to humans, sex, assault, human brutality. Honestly so much shitty shit happened I lost count of all the shitty shit. Other reviewers have a better list the only added information I can say is that everything is vividly written. Nothing horrifying is just skimmed over its written in a lot of detail in a way that can be visualized with ease.
Intriguing concept but shoddy exection. I was so very fond of Mossi and the mingi children (the few moments of tenderness this novel allows the reader) but everything else about this was grotesque and cynical to the point where I was having to psych myself up to finish it. But finish it I did, and I don’t feel like I gained anything from it. My wife DNF’d it at 35%. I perhaps should have followed their lead.