Book Review: ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’ Turns the Epic Fantasy Novel Inside Out
Black Leopard, Red Wolf
They call him Tracker, a “hunter known by no other name” who, for the right price, will find anyone you need found. His reputation as a pitiless, brutal man proceeds him; his nose, it’s been whispered, would put a dozen bloodhounds to shame. Once upon a time, this mysterious figure tells a jailhouse inquisitor, he was hired to join a group of nine and track down a boy who’d mysteriously gone missing. Readers of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Marlon James’ dizzying new novel, already know the case does not end well: “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know,” he informs us in the book’s first two lines. We have no idea how reliable or unreliable this narrator is (yet), so it’s impossible to say whether that first part is a partial confession, a power-play feint or a protective print-the-legend ruse.
But we do know the second statement, however, is a bald-faced lie. Because this antihero then proceeds, over 600-plus pages, to recount a long, perilous journey through a mythical land that could be the African continent in ancient times. Or it could be in another dimension altogether, one in which men with magical wolf eyes, giant creatures named Ogos, evil ceiling-walking spirits, river demons, zombies, a terrifying “mad monkey” run amuck, a shape-shifting leopard with a taste for sodomy and a spider king are the norm.
Pulling from folklore, fables and a host of fantasy novels from the not-so-distant past, James’ follow-up to his critically lauded A Brief History of Seven Killings is geared toward those who prefer broadsword battles over Bob Marley’s life story. He trades in the patois of his beautifully sprawling look at 1970s Jamaican politics and reggae superstars in favor of dollops of faux-Middle-earth speak (“She is Sogolon, master of the ten and nine doors”) and a variation on tough-guy banter usually associated with dimestore-novel gumshoes and flatfoots. Tracker’s default mode is defensive back-talk, and there are pages upon pages of our antihero and various supporting characters — witches, soldiers, rentboys, restless ghosts, you name it — engaging in long bouts of verbal jousting. It’s pure, uncut pulp pleasure.
But more important, James is utilizing his gift for lush prose not just in the name of world-building but also as a way of reinventing the grand genre epic. He jokingly compared this book to “an African Game of Thrones” last year, a quotable line from a self-proclaimed hardcore fantasy-lit nerd. But if anything, James has concocted a Tolkienesque tale that feels steeped in specific mythologies, eons-old superstitions, old wives’ tales and oral storytelling traditions.
And like many of his fantasy-novel predecessors, he’s packed enough cup-runneth-over plot in this bible-thick tome’s chapters to fill several trilogies — thank the gods that James has included a who’s-who breakdown similar to Seven Killings‘ cast of characters listing. (BLRW is the first in a series of three planned installments, by the way, and you could not ask for a better, more tantalizing franchise firestarter.) Yet the author never makes you sense he’s come anywhere near the limits of where he can take this conflicted hunter, those creatures or the kingdoms that Tracker and Co. violently slash through. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a claim-staking move, a saga worth its weight in Frank Frazetta paintings and a chance for the writer to leave his mark on a sword-and-sorcery template not usually associated with Man Booker Prize winners. The well of James’ imagination here feels virtually bottomless. You put it down word-drunk yet somehow thirsty for more.