There is no good place to begin speaking of a book cram-packed with proverbs, death, and trickery, because the end wraps around to the beginning like a snake eating its own tail, crushing you in its coils. Marlon James would tell you this himself; what you believe to be true is an illusion, and the illusion you see, well, it is a tale out for your blood.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf
Riverhead Books (2019)
Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first installment of James’ new Dark Star trilogy, is based on African history, legend, and myth, and the telling of that story is as complicated and sprawling as it sounds. In this story rife with demons and monsters, lost children and adoptive parents, Kings and kingmakers, James foists the onus of riddle-solving onto his audience—what will you believe and who will that save?
The simplest summary is this: the main character, Tracker, has joined a motley band of mercenaries who have been hired to seek out a missing boy upon whose life the fate of an ancient kingdom hangs. It is stated many times that Tracker is a man with a nose, but he is much more than that—an abandoned child whose family is a nightmare snarl of incest and mystery, a man whose eye was stolen and replaced with a wolf’s, a half man/half woman whose best friend can turn, at will, into a black leopard. He spends his days finding what has been lost for whomever will pay, which quickly becomes prophetic as he seeks the truth of the boy’s disappearance and his current whereabouts.
The company he keeps is vast and ever-shifting, and each companion has their own tangled web of narrative, exactly as you would expect from a band composed of mythical and magical beings. James is an expert world-builder, and none of the exotic kingdoms that you travel through in this journey feel contrived. Though each is more morally twisted than the last, he makes each fantastic local stand out with unique cultures and secrets that challenge and reveal the souls of Tracker and his companions as they encounter them. One of the many singular characteristics of this book (in a sea of unique traits), is that James’ cities and people are African to their core, and James sprinkles in different customs and languages with the finesse of a local (or, in this case, a brilliant researcher) and the reader is quickly swallowed by the scenery and people.
An adventure tale like none other
What results from James’ diligence is an adventure tale like none other. To say that the reader travels with Tracker is to say that we follow him through a hail of sword-fighting, demon slaying, and word play, as his wit is almost as quick in perception as his sense of smell. James plays on this well, making Tracker into a detective of especially sensitive clue-seeking ability, though flawed when it comes to interpreting and understanding what he finds. Though the book is written from his perspective, James is careful to show us Tracker’s weaknesses as well as his strengths, and much of the emotional brutality of the book arises not from the constant, graphic, visceral violence, but from the private wounding of Tracker, who is revealed to be as loyal to a pack as his nickname, Red Wolf, suggests, and he loses much over the course of the book as he fights his way to the core of the mystery as well as himself.
James pulls no punches, but what redeems this vicious story and its irredeemable characters is Tracker’s humanity, and James’ willingness to let him be broken because of his stubborn tenderness. Where other fantasy authors might be tempted to save their characters from gruesome fates, James surrenders Tracker to the worst of them, stripping his safety, dignity, friends, and family from him in agonizing layers until we finish the book with his heart completely exposed. For James, this unflinching mercilessness is what makes the story no longer a legend, but truth.
Despite the abundant magical realism on display, James cannot resist threading in the starkest realism to shade what might have become an exciting but ultimately forgettable fable. In this book, there are demons but no gods. Though there is life, it is covered in death. Though there is victory, it is short lived. Myths make great stories because there is a grand, aspirational ending, and for James that negates their power. There is no comforting, convenient, or clear ending here, and if you find an ideal or hero to admire in your midst, well, that’s your business, even if you are a fool. What makes these monsters monstrous and these heroes heroic is not their outward appearance or even the stories told about them, but their unconquerable, intimate souls which inevitably reveal themselves to our, and sometimes their own, surprise.
Whatever your conclusions, this novel does not make for light or easy reading. If you come on this journey with James, you will see terrible, unspeakable horrors. You will have your heart broken. You will lose whatever and whomever you love. You will know the extent and end of the known kingdoms. You will doubt and then forget what you trust. However, and this is most important, you will not be bored. I look forward to the next installment of the story, which will be written from the perspective of another character sharing Tracker’s journey (an enemy of his, in fact), if only to find out if I still have the wool over my eyes. There is much more to be said, but, as with all great books, you’ll have to read this one to find out the truth for yourself.
Kelsey Capps is a writer and Reader in Residence at The Wild Detectives. Her short stories and reviews have been mentioned in a variety of publications including Hobo Pancakes, Literary Hub, and The Guardian, and she is finishing her second novel. You can follow her work and current reads on Instagram at @readwritethecraft.