Adult Fiction · Book Review · Mystery/Thriller

The Chalk Man

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The Chalk Man alternates between two time periods: 1986 in which the characters are young teens to 2016 when they are adults bordering on middle age. After Eddie’s friend received a large bucket of chalk for his birthday, the friends began to use the chalk to write secret messages and make rude drawings around town. It was innocent enough, but the fun ended quickly when the chalk drawings were connected to a string of murders. The quaint English town was quickly upended by salacious and bloody scandals. Now, in 2016, the past comes back to haunt Eddie and his friends when they become the targets of a new murder spree.

Since I’m still battling a reading slump, I wanted something fast paced and gripping. The Chalk Man definitely made me turn the pages, but by the end, I was slightly dissatisfied. The plot was the main draw for me, and I felt it was executed pretty well. There are a lot of twists, turns, and red herrings. I was hoping that the “bad guy” wasn’t the person that the book seemed to be pointing the reader toward in the beginning. Luckily, it wasn’t that predictable. Although, a couple “hints” toward the real bad guy were pretty heavy handed. As always, there are some overly convenient plot devices to move the story in the intended direction, and some parts of the plot could be more clearly explained to tie up lose ends. However, it was not bad. It was entertaining. The book is fairly short and the pace is quick, which could be a pro or con depending on what you’re looking for.

Eddie and his friends did not do much for me as characters. The story was told from Eddie’s perspective, so it is a little limited in what we know and see. Add to that, Eddie as a narrator was slightly unreliable, which made the book a bit more interesting. Still, if you’ve read a lot of the domestic thrillers with unreliable narrators, this is not something new. (This time at least it wasn’t a woman with a drinking problem…) Somehow, despite seeing everything from his point of view, I did not feel very connected to Eddie or any of his friends. Maybe I am spoiled from the mountains of character development in Stephen King’s novels, but I felt like The Chalk Man could have spent a little more time on the main characters and their relationships.

All in all, it was an OK read. For a debut novel, it was good. The writing has some personality, and it pulled me into the story well enough. The plot was unique to me, but the book as a whole could have used a little more polish and depth. I would still recommend The Chalk Man as a quick, entertaining thriller. If you consider some thrillers as “beach reads,” this one might qualify. I gave The Chalk Man a middle-of-the-road three out of five stars.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Science Fiction

Borne

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Do you ever find a new author, read and like a book or two they wrote, then all of the sudden realize that you found a new favorite author? Well, that’s what is going on with me. I’ve read and reviewed two other books from Jeff VanderMeer, Wonderbook and Annihilation. I really liked them both, and he might be the author to finally get me into the sci-fi genre. But enough about me. Onward to the review!

Rachel survives by scavenging in her ruined, half-abandoned city. The whys and hows of the city’s destruction is a bit of a mystery, but the city’s fate is closely tied to The Company’s. The Company’s experiments and disregard for humanity as well as the natural world are at least partially to blame for the city’s downfall. In fact, The Company’s biggest and most terrible experiment now lords of the city in the shape of a giant, violent, flying bear named Mord. On one of Rachel’s scavenging trips she finds a strange plant-like creature. She takes it home, not knowing exactly what it is. Rachel’s partner, Wick, disapproves of the strange creature, but Rachel cannot bring herself to give it up. Things become even more complicated when what she thought was a plant becomes a sentient being.

Is this one of those Bizarro fiction things? I mean there’s a giant, flying bear terrorizing a city, after all. No, skeptical reader! Don’t let the flying bear distract you! This book has a lot of heart and serious themes, actually. If you read Annihilation, or the entire Southern Reach Trilogy, you might be skeptical of that statement too, as I have seen many readers complain about Annihilation and its sequels lacking in character depth clarity of plot. Yes, Annihilation is a bit odd, and it does not fully explain everything. Borne’s plot is much more focused, and I was more attached to the main characters. Was everything perfectly explained? No. For example, if you want to know why the bear flies, well, he’s been experimented on, and that’s really all the book tells you. If details like that bother you, you might not like it. The science isn’t super scientific. This isn’t The Martian.

As I mentioned, the characters in Borne are more refined and easier to connect to than those in Annihilation. However, like Annihilation, Borne is written in first person from the perspective of a female character. VanderMeer writes from a female perspective well. Rachel is intelligent, strong-willed, caring, and resourceful, but she also has flaws and makes mistakes. Wick, her partner, is also a good character, but he was more difficult to connect to because of his murky past and because we are reading from Rachel’s perspective. And of course, I have to mention Borne himself. I don’t want to give too much away, but it is hard not to love this non-human character because he is so human.

As for the plot, I liked it, but it felt a little less experimental than VanderMeer’s trilogy, which might be better for some readers. As I said, the plot is much more clear-cut in Borne. The plot takes some predictable turns, but it was still a very unique and engrossing read. The ending wraps things up very well, but I found myself wishing that a few more events, characters, and creatures were explained in depth. This isn’t to say that there are huge plot holes. I just wanted to know more about the world and what happened to the city. The world building feels very vast. The city feels both desolate and feral, but the wider world is mentioned here and there, giving a sense that maybe there’s many other stories to tell.

One last thing I want to mention is why I, specifically, liked this novel. Your mileage may vary. As someone who has always enjoyed fiction and non-fiction that deals with the environment and nature, VanderMeer’s work just clicks with me. His descriptions of plants and animals and how humans connect with and exploit the natural world is just great. He examines so many themes of environmentalism, society, and humanity in a sci-fi novel with a flying bear in it. That impresses me! There’s a lot of emotional and intellectual depth in Rachel’s musings too. This is the first sci-fi novel that I have read that felt literary.

I debated on rating Borne 4 or 5 stars, but ultimately went with 4. It was a great read, but I expected the main story arch to be slightly less predictable, and well, I just wanted more from the book. I’m a harsh judge though, and even as I write this I am considering raising my rating…

 

Book Review · Nonfiction

Intelligence in Nature

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After reading The Genius of Birds and loving it, I was on the hunt for another nonfiction book on animal intelligence, preferably something with a wider of array of animals to discuss. Jeremy Narby’s Intelligence in Nature sounded like it was exactly what I was looking for. Spoiler: it was not, but that doesn’t mean it was bad.

Intelligence in Nature is a bit of a travelogue with some research findings mixed in. There is a definite anthropological spin to the book, as Narby meets with and interviews several natives of the regions he travels to. He interviews healers, guides, and several shamans. He asks them about their views on intelligence in nature, and he collects a variety of beliefs and responses. Narby also includes recent research regarding intelligence in animals, plants, and microbes as well as meetings with experts in scientific fields. Narby presents a variety of views of intelligence in nature, but as a whole the book feels a little disjointed and slightly off topic.

While it was interesting to hear what the shamans and healers had to say about their world, I was hoping to read about more scientific, concrete discoveries. I liked when Narby introduced the shamans to some ideas of modern science, but ultimately, the content of the book did not quite match the title or synopsis, in my view. I was looking for some in depth explanation and analysis of intelligence in other organisms, but Narby glossed over some of the details in favor of an anthropological approach to the subject.

Intelligence in Nature was a slight disappointment because its content didn’t quite meet my expectations, but it was still an interesting and informative read. It would have benefited from a little more organization of the ideas presented in the text, but the journeys Narby took and the people he met along the way bring a unique perspective to the topic of intelligence in the natural world. I rated the book 2-2.5 out of 5 stars.

 

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Historical

The Immortalists

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A few months ago, I picked this up, liked the first chapter, and then put it down because I became too busy. Earlier this month I picked The Immortalists up again, and I regretted it. Not because it was horrible. I simply did not get along with it at all. Why? Well, it’s definitely a “me” thing. If you are not in good place mentally, you may want to avoid this one for now. It could be triggering to anyone who is sensitive to reading about grief, trauma, suicide, self harm, or abortion.

It’s New York City in 1969, and the Gold children, Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon, escape their parents’ apartment long enough to visit a woman who is rumored to have the ability to predict the day you will die. The children receive their predictions with mixed reactions, but such a simple and supposedly “fun” outing ends up complicating all of their lives for many years to come. The Immortalists follows the Gold children into adulthood as they experience the unique challenges that the 80’s, 90’s, and the new millennium brought to the United States. The novel is broken into four parts, with each part following one of the Gold children.

Fortune telling, death days, family, and historical fiction, it all sounds great! The reality is that this is really just a historical fiction family saga with a little magical spice thrown in. That’s still an interesting premise, but if you are excited about this being a magical realism novel, you might be disappointed. After the fortune teller gives them their death dates, the rest of the novel focuses on the characters’ adult lives. Though the day of their deaths obviously play a large role, it is more of an underlying driving force than being in the forefront of the plot.

I really enjoyed seeing different parts of the country at different points in time. We get to see New York in the late 60’s and early 70’s and San Francisco and Las Vegas in the 80’s and 90’s. Although the book was not very descriptive or atmospheric, it was nice to see such an interesting historical backdrop to the family drama. The family isn’t overtly dysfunctional, but as time goes on, it is easy to see the cracks in the family’s foundation, which is what the novel is mostly about. The family as a whole have some issues with communication and openness, but more and more issues crop up as their death dates approach.

I couldn’t help thinking that a lot of what was predicted became a self-fulfilling prophecy. In particular, a couple of the children made some (in my view) very odd, out-of-character, and just plain bad choices that led to very bad things happening. A few of the family members likely had some mental illnesses and issues with trauma, but I had a hard time believing some of the characters’ reactions and actions. I know I’m speaking in extremely general terms here, but hey, that’s the trade off when I try not to spoil anyone!

The family is Jewish, and I liked that their faith actually played a role in how they processed their problems and viewed the world. Each child of the family even had a different way of viewing and utilizing their faith, and some were more optimistic than others, of course. There were also some very beautiful lines and some interesting connections between main and side characters. The characters were all pretty “gray” in that no one was always perfect or good. They made mistakes and did morally questionable things, but no one was painted as a true bad guy either. There are touches of levity and humor, but the novel as a whole I would describe as melancholy.

The book is about life, and life isn’t always great. The choices you make can be far-reaching, and the impact certain people make can change the course of another’s life. The book is often sad, but if you have recently lost someone, I could see how it may also be comforting. For me, it was not, but everyone copes differently. I hesitate to rate this one. For pure reading enjoyment, 3/5 stars. However, the book was not bad, but as far as family sagas go, it was solid but not standout.

Book Review · Fantasy/Magical Realism · Young Adult Fiction

Every Heart a Doorway

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This book was everywhere a few years ago. Since then there has been about one new book in the series per year. If you know me, you know I love Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Inkheart trilogy, or anything where a kid finds himself/herself somehow in another world. “Portal fantasy” appears to be the term thrown around to describe these novels and Every Heart a Doorway, so we will go with that. Every Heart a Doorway is a portal fantasy with a boarding school setting, a murder mystery, a diverse cast, and some hints at romances to come. On paper, it sounds great. In reality, it was a bit of a disappointment to me.

Nancy arrives at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. Nancy is under the impression that this is simply a boarding school her parents have sent her to because they do not believe that she has traveled into another world. However, the school is specifically for children who have traveled to other worlds. Their parents think that their children have ran away, been kidnapped, or abused, while the children all know that their experiences in various fantasy worlds were real. The Home for Wayward Children helps kids who have returned from their portal world either find their way back to their doors or come to terms with their lives in the “real world.” Nancy meets the proprietor, Ms. West, as well many of the other children staying at the school. While Nancy went to a world very much like the underworld, many others went to candy lands, nonsense worlds, rhyming worlds and worlds with vampires, goblins, insect queens, and the list goes on. Just as Nancy starts to understand her peers and the school, brutal murders begin happening, endangering all of the students. Nancy and her newfound friends must figure out what is going on in order to save their school from possibly closing down, which would leave all of the children without a place to call home.

The characters were probably the strongest part. Nancy and her friends were all good characters. Some of their banter was entertaining, and the cast was diverse with asexual and trans characters. I praise the representation, but some of the conversations about sex felt slightly forced. Especially when the book as a whole is so short, it feels odd to have characters take so much time to talk about sex, sexuality, and masturbation in a fantasy novel. Is it cool that we talk frankly about sex in a YA novel? Definitely! Is it cool that it takes up more time than other aspects of the plot and characters? Maybe not. Again, I truly appreciate that the author spends time on these topics (the author also writes about sexuality/gender issues very beautifully and with respect), but give me all of that in addition to more of the fantasy, magical, creepy school goodness I was promised in the blurb.

This is a novella-sized story that tries to fit in a lot in a short number of pages, and it does not work perfectly. The pacing feels odd. We start with Nancy arriving at the school, we get to know her, she gets to know a few students, then all of the sudden MURDER. The murder mystery consumes the plot from then on. I was looking forward to getting to know the fantasy aspect of how these portals or doors to other worlds work. I was looking forward to exploring the school building (What huge mansions and expansive grounds in a fantasy novel do not have secrets?), the classes, the students, the teachers, and the various worlds more, but there just wasn’t time to develop anything fully. Now, I know that there are several more books in the series, and you cannot expect everything to be explained in the first book of a series, but there was so little here that I do not feel inclined to pick up the next book. The ending also felt abrupt. The murder mystery is rather quickly and easily dealt with at the end. The author drops some hints about how the magic/doors work in the final scenes, but it is too late in the plot to get any actual answers.

I liked a lot of what Every Heart a Doorway had to offer, but it just needed more— more descriptions, more details about the plot/mystery, more character development, more information about the school, magic system, etc. Is this an incentive to read more of the books? Maybe. I am curious about the rest of the series, but I am not sure if I will read them all. If you’ve read any more of the series, let me know your thoughts in the comments. Am I complaining about things that get better in the next books? Tell me! As of now, I gave Every Heart a Doorway a rating of three out of five stars.

 

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Science Fiction

The Vine That Ate the South

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Have you ever had the most awful week? There must be a big, black rain cloud over my and my family member’s heads right now. So, when in doubt, read something really wacky. I have talked about my local indie publisher, Two Dollar Radio, on here before. They publish some really off-the-wall sci-fi/fantasy as well as some hard hitting family dramas and political novels. Basically, they publish a mixed bag of really unique authors and their work. Nobody is paying me to sing their praises; I just genuinely like the company and what they put out. Enter The Vine That Ate the South, one of those off-the-wall sci-fi novels I mentioned.

As the title suggests, there is a vine that is eating the southern United States (there really is too– look up the kudzu vine). Specifically, the novel takes place somewhere in western Kentucky. Our unnamed protagonist sets out to find the rumored heart of the vine, also known as “The Deadening.” Since the protagonist is a bit unsure of how to proceed by himself, he enlists the help of Carver Canute, a rather strange local with a thick southern accent and a pig-greased pompadour who has been to The Deadening before. Together, the narrator/protagonist and Carver venture through the Kentucky wilderness, finding everything from vampires to albino panthers to some just plain crazy hillbillies.

I have read some bizarre books before, but in my opinion, all of the craziness must have a point or else it will not be as enjoyable to me. Is there a point then? Kind of. There’s an adventure with a destination, but along the way Wilkes throws many Southern U.S. folktales and philosophical passages our way. If you aren’t familiar with the folktales, you might be confused. Even if you are familiar with them (or are happy to go along for the ride if you don’t), you might wonder what the point of encountering some of them are because the encounters do not always directly or obviously connect to the overall plot/journey. I enjoyed the nods to references I knew, but I also questioned the point of some encounters in the whole scope of the novel. Maybe there wasn’t a point sometimes, at least compared to a more traditional adventure story plot, but it could have been the author simply wanting to have fun and push some of the folklore of the south into the hands of readers unfamiliar with it. As someone from a state that is also considered very rural, agricultural, backward, and a bit hillbilly, I can appreciate wanting to share the things unique to my area with a wider audience.

Writing-wise, I enjoyed the book. The author is good at describing the weird and wild scenes. There are also some really beautiful lines that talk about nature and more philosophical topics. The novel is in first-person perspective, and the narrator has a very casual, conversational tone. I have to commend the writer’s ability to translate the local dialect into the text. As someone who has lived in Kentucky, I can say that I know a few people who sound just like Carver Canute. The characters are also well written. Carver is weird but entertaining, has great lines, and is very memorable. The narrator never shares his name, but he references his past here and there throughout the novel. You can get a good sense of the kind of person he is without needing a name. I could relate to him a bit because of these references, so I found that even as a female reader, it was easy to insert myself into the book.

The final verdict is four out five stars from me. It was a wild, fun ride that gave me equal amounts escapism and stuff to think about it. I would recommend this to anyone who has a taste for bizarre science fiction, folklore, or fans of Jeff Vandermeer’s work. Vandermeer actually has praise for this novel on its cover, so I think it will hit the mark for his fans who are in the mood for something more indie in style.

 

Book Review · Nonfiction

The Hidden Life of Trees

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A new post?! Yes! I am not dead, but I am still not really reading. As much as I love physical books, I cannot seem to find the time or energy to use my eyes to read anything except the infinitely depressing news in the U.S. right now. On the bright side, spring has sprung where I am, so I have been trying to go for walks/runs more often. In the spirit of spring and because I cannot seem to read a physical book, I have been listening to an audio book about trees on my walks. And it’s great! Now, hold on there, you might say. Trees? What is so interesting about trees? What hidden life could they possibly have? Well, my friend, let me tell you about a few tree-rific facts I have learned. Maybe I can get you as excited about trees as I am.

Author Peter Wohlleben is a forester with extensive experience with both commercial forestry and conservation. In this book Wohlleben details the life cycle of trees, their role in keeping forests (and the planet) healthy, how trees “care” for their young, and how trees communicate with each other. Yes, I said communicate. No, they do not speak as we do, of course, but they are actually able to communicate in a few different ways. Wohlleben describes how trees have a sense of smell, feeling, and taste. Again, it isn’t the same sort of senses that we have, but they are able to detect and react to scents, injuries, and, for example, pests’ saliva. It was also interesting to learn that the quiet forest you are walking around in is teeming with action below the surface. Trees are able to communicate via the “Wood Wide Web,” a network of connections between plant roots and fungi that can transfer warnings as well as nutrients to other connected members.

As I mentioned, I read this via an audio book. The narrator, Mike Grady, has a British accent that reminded me of the narration on something like a wildlife documentary: soothing, authoritative, and clear. The language of the book is not difficult. Most terms are defined, and easy to understand examples are given to explain more complex topics. So, do not be discouraged if you know nothing about trees!

I am completely biased, but I think the best way to enjoy this book is by being outside, taking a walk, or at least sitting by a sunny, tree-filled window. I loved being able to listen to the book while looking around at the trees outside. I consider myself an environmentally friendly person already, but I gained even more respect for trees, fungi, forests as a whole, and how they are all integral for a healthy and happy planet. I rated The Hidden Life of Trees four out of five stars.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Science Fiction

Annihilation

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These past two weeks I have been in Hong Kong. I actually read a lot during the flight there and back (14-16 hrs per flight), but I had no time to review anything because I was still working and adhering to deadlines with a 12 hour time difference to take into consideration. Excuses, excuses, but this has been one tough spring for me. But this is a book blog, so let’s move onto the books!

After reading Jeff Vandermeer’s creative writing guide for sci-fi and fantasy, Wonderbook, I was feeling guilty for not reading his actual novels. How can you take someone’s writing advice when you don’t even know if you like their own work? I don’t know, and admittedly that was not the right order to do things… but I can say I have read his work now, and yes, I liked it.

Annihilation is the first book in Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. This first volume is very short at just shy of 200 pages, but it packs quite a punch. In the novel we follow “the biologist” as she and her colleagues explore a place called Area X. The Southern Reach is the entity that puts these expeditions together with volunteers from various fields. Previous groups have died or experienced changes in themselves. The biologist is on expedition number twelve with three other women: the anthropologist, the psychologist, and the surveyor. Together the four women enter Area X, knowing that they may never return– or at least not as who they once were.

I would call this novel a sci-fi thriller. The happenings of the novel have some basis in science, but it gets a little weird at times. There are some good suspenseful parts, and there are some survival/mystery elements that can easily hook readers. This is a novel that you have to be OK with being confused or lost. For much of the novel we see strange animals, plants, and places with few concrete explanations. The characters become unreliable at times because they are never quite sure if they can trust their senses. Despite the characters lacking actual names, I did not feel emotionally disconnected from them. The biologist is the narrator, and we get many scenes of her remembering her past. Plus, you’re in her head the whole time. However, I can see how any or all of these factors might leave the reader feeling lost, and the ending gives few answers. It is something to aware of, but if you like open-ended novels, this is such a quick and engrossing read that it does not hurt to try!

I gave Annihilation four out of five stars. It was quick, fun, suspenseful, and wonderfully weird. I wish that there had been a bit more direction and clarification in the ending especially, but I enjoyed what I read here and am looking forward to seeing what books two and three have to offer.

 

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Science Fiction

Binti

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Apparently this is the year of sci-fi for me. It isn’t a genre I often reach for because I simply like other genres more. I’ve never been that interested in books about space travel and advanced technology. Give me swords and sorcery any day, but at least I am aware of the fact I should branch out!

Binti has been accepted into the most prestigious school in the galaxy, Oomza University. But Binti is Himba, and her people simply do not leave Earth. Binti sneaks away in the night to leave for her new school because she knows her family will disapprove. As she travels through the stars to her new life, her ship is attacked by the Meduse, an alien race with a long history of war with some humans on Earth.

Binti tells her story in first-person perspective, so it is very easy to get to know her. She is a headstrong, brave, intelligent, and resourceful girl who takes her fate into her own hands. She clearly loves her family and has pride in her people’s traditions. As Binti travels to her new school, she sees humans from different cultures. Her ways are strange to the majority, so she faces some “curiosity” from other people which is really just discrimination. The themes of ignorance breeding hate and listening/learning leading to understanding of differences are touched on a few times even in this short (~100 page) first novella of the series. The other major theme is fitting in and finding yourself in a very different world from what you know, which is actually very easy to relate to for any young person going off to college– across the galaxy or across the country.

It is hard to not recommend such a quick and compelling read. I enjoyed this first novella in the series, but I am unsure if I will continue it soon. I listened to this as an audiobook instead of reading a hard copy, and I would say that the audiobook was a good experience. I prefer reading the hard copy of fantasy/sci-fi books that contain author-created words so that I can see how the words are spelled instead of only hearing them, but I had no trouble with that issue in this audiobook because there were so few unfamiliar words. I gave Binti three or three and a half stars out of five. I am intrigued by the novella and the author’s writing and creativity, so I may continue the series or read more from the author in the future.

 

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Fantasy/Magical Realism

Black Leopard, Red Wolf

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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.