One of my goals for my blog this year is to review more new releases. This book got a lot of buzz from the start because the author, Marlon James, won the Man Booker Prize in 2015 for A Brief History of Seven Killings. I haven’t read that book, or any of his other work yet, but I could not resist the fact that Black Leopard, Red Wolf is an African myth-filled epic journey of a sort of anti-hero. I’ve seen marketing calling it “an African Game of Thrones.” Um… well, no. When I think of A Song of Ice and Fire, I think about complex political maneuvering, multiple characters’ point of view, Euro-centric myth and creatures, etc. Black Leopard, Red Wolf does not quite fit that description, which– I think– is a very important distinction to make. In fact, I would not even recommend this book for your general fantasy lover. It is also very dark and perhaps controversial. If gore, violence, homosexual relationships, descriptions of genitalia or sex acts, or rape (of basically everyone and everything) bothers you, beware of this book.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf focuses on one main character, Tracker. There are many, many characters throughout the novel, but the book is written in first person with Tracker as our main character and narrator. All we know about Tracker is that he has a nose that smell out anyone, and one of his eye’s is a wolf’s. The novel begins with Tracker speaking directly to you, with “you” being an inquisitor. We are given small hints about Tracker’s current situation and about this inquisitor throughout the tale, but Tracker tends to skip around in his storytelling. We learn about Tracker’s childhood a bit, his life in the African bush and with other tribes, how he met some of his companions, and a few tales of his past feats. However, the majority of the novel deals with Tracker being hired to find a mysteriously missing boy in the company of witches, shapeshifters, demons, spirits, and gods.
Trying to give a synopsis of this one is challenging, but I would highly advise reading a few pages before you buy it. Again, this isn’t your average fantasy novel. It is very, very lyrical and descriptive. The language and scenes are often surreal, and some reading between the lines may be needed to discern what is actually happening. I had a hard time at the beginning of the novel because I honestly had no idea what was going on. However, once I became accustomed to the writing style, characters, and plot, it became overall very enjoyable to read, if still challenging. I would not say that this is a novel that you can lose yourself in the world. The setting is amazing and unique, but the book is a little lax about explaining the hows and whys of the world. There’s no tidy Brandon Sanderson magic system here. Having some knowledge of African folklore might help you though. There is also a list of important characters/creatures that can be helpful to refer back to as you read.
The plot and characters are both very interesting. As I said, there are quite a few characters that come and go throughout the novel. It might be hard to remember everyone, but the main cast stays somewhat constant once you get to the main journey. Tracker and a few of the characters close to him are well written, but secondary characters often make an impression too. They all have distinct personalities with their own motives to drive them. One thing I like about Tracker being the narrator is that there are a lot of “holes” in the story. Tracker sometimes becomes separated from his comrades or knocked out, he may choose to leave something out of his narrative, or characters leave and return from their own journeys. In these moments we simply don’t know what happened to the other characters unless they tell Tracker and he tells us. This not only adds character depth but it also adds a lot of “off the page” plot, which sometimes pops back up later in the story and other times remains unexplained.
The plot could be confusing, especially early on. Tracker skips around a bit at the beginning of the novel. Once he begins talking about his quest for the missing child things start to make more sense and become more linear. This is going to be a trilogy, so it should be no surprise that this first books spends a lot of time setting up the plot, the world, and the characters. Much of the book is a mystery in that we do not know who this missing boy is or why everyone wants him. Each character Tracker encounters seems to have their own story about the boy. Who is lying? Who can Tracker trust? Most of the book is spent chasing the boy’s scent, which means a lot of traveling. If you don’t like travel adventures, you may dislike this first book, but in my opinion, enough happens in each location that it does not become boring.
Yes, this book has political maneuvering, but it is not quite to the scale of A Song of Ice and Fire (yet?). Yes, it has multiple characters, but they don’t have their perspectives. Yes, there is a lot of myth and magic, but it all feels very different than European-based fantasy. There is a raw, feral, and unforgiving feel to this novel. If you already like fantasy or magical realism and you also like surreal descriptions, lyrical writing, dialogue with dialects, don’t mind a little work to get into a book, and you don’t mind some dark themes, this might be a book for you. I would not go into expecting Game of Thrones or any other more mainstream fantasy. As someone who really likes unique fantasy and loves slightly overwritten novels, this is a pro for me, but I hesitate to say it is a book that a general fantasy lover would be interested in reading. Black Leopard, Red Wolf gets four solid stars out of five from me. I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy in the future. It was certainly a memorable experience like nothing else I have ever read.