Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
Content warning: graphic depictions of violence, explicit sexual content, sexual assault/violence, adult language
Black Leopard, Red Wolf (2019, 640 pages) is the fourth novel by Jamaican-American author Marlon James and the first book in his Dark Star trilogy. Black Leopard, Red Wolf won the L.A. Times Ray Bradbury Prize and was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award. The novel was also a New York Times Bestseller and was named the best book of 2019 by the Wall Street Journal, TIME, NPR, GQ, VOGUE and the Washington Post. Set against the backdrop of mounting tensions between two kingdoms in a fantasy/alternate Africa, the novel makes place in a world where humans co-exist alongside baby eating witches, vampires who shoot lightning from their bodies and demons that walk on ceilings. At the start of the book, the protagonist, a hunter named Tracker/Red Wolf, is in prison and he narrates the book’s plot to the man interrogating him, named the Inquisitor. Although we get a few stories from the Tracker’s youth and early adulthood, the main events of the story take place after Tracker is employed to track down and retrieve a missing boy, whose true identity is shrouded in mystery. In his quest to find the missing boy, Tracker is joined by a group of misfits who are desperate to find the boy before others find and harm him.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf starts with a confession, “the child is dead. There is nothing left to know”. But as his interrogation with the Inquisitor progresses, we learn that narrator, “who some have called wolf” (and presumably “Red Wolf” because of the number of people he has murdered), has a nose that people have hired to find cheating husbands, runaway wives and most importantly, missing children. Red Wolf, or Tracker as he is known primarily in the book, recounts several stories about his life, in non-chronological order: “You wish for a story? I shall give you a story.” In the first few chapters of the book, the stories are short and unrelated to each other – one story is of how he killed his father and was banished by his mother, another is about how he fought with demons in the underworld while trying to return a drowned king to his queen and yet another about how he seduced the wife of Prince while pretending to be a slave and then killed his master when he got bored. But after all of these sordid, gory tales, Tracker says: “But that is not the story”.
A coherent narrative begins to develop after Tracker runs away from his relatives, who have rejected him, and meets Black Leopard, a shape-shifting hunter. Black Leopard introduces Tracker to Sangoma, an antiwitch, who protects mingi, or deformed children who are viewed as cursed and so are sacrificed to protect their families and villages from drought, famine and plague. Tracker experiences some degree of normalcy and safety, even love, while living with Sangoma and the mingi in the jungle: “Say this about a child […] they cannot imagine a world where you do not love them, for what else should one do but love them?” But when Tracker is betrayed by a jealous lover and forced to flee the place he has called home for almost two moons, the hard core that had been softening solidifies again and Tracker is once again set adrift: “I was for long moons alone”.
Years later, while living in a city called Malakal, Tracker reunites with the Leopard and the two tell each other stories about what they had been doing in the intervening years. Leopard tries to enlist Tracker’s help in finding a missing boy, who was kidnapped three years ago: “You have a nose, Tracker. You could find him in days.” Leopard tells Tracker that he was hired by a slaver for a lot of money to “either find this child alive, or proof of his death, and he does not care what we do to find him”. Tracker is immediately suspicious of the slaver, his intentions and his relationship to the missing boy, but Tracker hesitantly agrees to follow Leopard on a visit to the slaver to hopefully get some answers to his questions. While on the way to meet the slaver, Leopard informs Tracker that the slaver has also commissioned five men and three women to find the missing boy. And although Tracker remains suspicious of the slaver, even after speaking with him, Tracker decides to join the hunt for the missing boy.
The group – which James calls the “fellowship” in an obvious reference to Tolkien – that sets out to find the missing boy are a hodge-podge of unusual characters, each with an interesting backstory that has led him/her on the quest. In addition to Tracker and Leopard, the group includes: Nsaka Ne Vampi, a female mercenary; Nyka, a skin-shedding mercenary who was once Tracker’s friend/love interest; a three-hundred-year-old Moon Witch named Sogolon; and Sadaogo, an Ogo, a race of tall and mighty men that are as violent as they are easily manipulated. The fellowship eventually splits into different factions, with each group going their own way and are joined by a host of secondary characters that weave in and out of the plot as they murder and are murdered in uniquely gruesome ways: “Then he [the Ogo] punched a hole through his chest”. Tracker’s motley faction is joined by Mossi of Azar, a soldier in the Kongori chieftain’s army, who agrees to help look for the missing boy. After building sexual tension, Mossi and Tracker begin a relationship that is surprisingly tender, considering the graphic violence in the novel: “He rubbed my cheek and moved up to my forehead, traced one brow, then the other […] while his fingers caressed my neck”. The remainder of the novel follows Tracker and his band of misfits as they travel through strange cities, encounter strange people/beasts and uncover the identity of the missing boy.
I read Black Leopard, Red Wolf for my book club and I was really looking forward to reading it because I loved Marlon James’ The Book of Night Women (read my review here) and was excited to read his epic, African fantasy trilogy. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a very divisive book in that most readers either love it or hate it, there is no room for indifference with this book. However, I am among the few who still manage to have mixed feelings about this very complex book. But I would like to start with the things I loved about this unique fantasy adventure quest. The first thing that anyone who has read the book will appreciate, is the world that James has built, which is a magical ancient Africa with distinct cities, populated by monsters, witches and necromancers. James did a lot of research to create this world and it is evident in the names and characteristics of his monsters, the dialogue and even the literary devices he uses to relate the story. For example, many of the monsters in the novel are taken from African mythology, the Ipundulu, who in the novel is a winged male vampiric being that shoots lightening, is taken from the Impundulu, or lightening bird, from the myths of the Zulu and Xhosa ethnic groups in South Africa. The novel also features the Adzi, a blood sucking creature that changes into a swarm of bugs that attack the victim and drink their blood. In the folklore of the Ewe people in Togo and Ghana, the Adze is a vampiric creature that appears as a firefly but will transform into a human when captured.
At the start of the novel, James provides a list of characters in the novel as well as maps of different cities and locations featured in the book. The list of characters is very overwhelming at first, but as you read the novel, their distinct personalities serve as a testament to James’ excellent writing skills particularly his ability to create such memorable characters. Even more impressive is that James is able to do this without providing a detailed physical description of the characters, for example, even after reading the novel, I am still not able to say what Tracker or the Leopard look like, but I feel as if I know what each character would or wouldn’t do in any given situation. James’ descriptions of the cities in the novel are just as distinct; Kongor is conservative, legalistic and moralistic; Malakal is the socially stratified walled city and; Dolingo is the technological advanced tree city.
Similar to his use of Jamaica Patios in The Book of Night Women, James uses the cadence and grammatical structure of African languages (at least when translated into English) to create dialogue that is authentic to the world and its characters: “I tell you true, tell you quick, tell you now.” The dialogue has this rhythmic quality that readers will appreciate and those who listened to the audiobook, like I did, will appreciate it even more. James also uses features of African storytelling in the novel, notably the use of an unreliable narrator. In contrast, in European folklore, the reader can always trust the narrator’s version of events. In Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Tracker’s unreliability is exacerbated by the duality of many of the characters, and even locations, in the novel. For instance, the Leopard's ability to shape-shift from human to animal, Tracker’s gender fluidity, and the fluidity of even the locations, where characters can use magic doors to go from one far-flung one city to another in a matter of seconds. In an interview with Ari Shapiro from WBUR, James says, “It doesn't change how much you enjoy the story, but it does put the burden of belief on you […] I have no duty to tell it true or not. It’s your job to judge if I’m lying or not.”
I also loved that the novel's main romantic relationships involved same-sex couples. Tracker’s attraction to and relationships with men is presented matter-of-factly and without any of the fanfare that is typically involved when a major character has same-sex attraction. This is a huge departure from most novels in the fantasy/adventure genre, where the most you can expect is a bi-sexual hero/heroine, who still ends up in a traditional relationship in the end. Although Tracker has a few causal encounters with women, the first person he ever loves and the only person he has ever told he loves, are both men. And, in a book that is criticized heavily for its use of gratuitous violence, particularly sexual violence, the only consensual sexual encounter is between two men. Even more refreshingly, Tracker's character doesn't play into any of the tropes generally used for gay characters, for instance, he isn't burdened with shame and/or self-hatred nor is he conniving and manipulative. Instead, Tracker is brave, strong and loyal illustrating that such character traits are not solely the purview of straight male protagonists.
Something else I loved is how James described the vilest necromancers: “[They were] white because even their skin rebel against their evil, for there is only so much vileness that your own skin can agree to. White like only the purest evil”. This really stood out to me because as a matter of course in novels, movies, music and comics, the bad guy has dark skin. I don’t read much fantasy/adventure novels but to see evil depicted and equated with white was ground-breaking for me. Another example of the how the concept of “white” and “light” are turned on its head in the novel is in the city of Kongor, where the greatest evil happened during the day and people only got respite in the darkness of night. It wasn’t until I read about the evil of the “white scientists” that I realized that I needed to read a book where evil wasn’t associated with Black/darkness/night.
I am going to be honest with you though, if it wasn’t for my book club, I probably would not have finished reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf and I wouldn't have been the only one. In fact, I really struggled to rate this book because there were so many unique and interesting things that I loved about this novel, but I also had some serious issues with the book. The most common critique of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the violence and there is a lot of it. After having read James’ The Book of Night Women, which is also very violent, I started Black Leopard, Red Wolf expecting a fair amount of violence, but I was still surprised that he managed to outdo himself in this novel. Sexual violence is prolific in this novel, there are multiple rapes per chapter and although not all are described in detail, the ones that are, stand out as particularly graphic.
Tracker was also an enigma to me, usually I have to like the protagonist in order to enjoy a book, but Tracker is a hard man to like. As an anti-hero, Tracker lacks many of the traits of traditional heroes, such as selflessness, morality and idealism. Tracker’s most venerable character trait is his love of children, going so far as to adopt mingi children and attempts to create a family and home for them alongside his lover, Mossi. Tracker’s soft spot for children adds a dimension of tenderness to his character that is missing in most of the book. In her review, Amal El-Mohtar says, “[you] want to love the narrator who holds you constantly at arm’s length”, but you can’t because Tracker doesn’t want or care if you love him. In fact, Tracker's common refrain throughout the novel is “nobody loves no one”.
Additionally, the first two-thirds of the novel were particularly difficult to read because the stories Tracker tells the Inquisitor before the start of the “real story” have little to no narrative link to each other or to the main story. This leads to another related critique, which is that this novel could have benefitted from better editing. Black Leopard, Red Wolf could have easily been 200-250 pages shorter without losing any of the main plot or the fantastic world James created. There is so much superfluous dialogue, subplots and sub-subplots in the novel that it took a very long time to get to the main story and even after the main plot seemed to be resolved, the book still had another 100 pages left!
Many critics have also pointed out the misogyny in the novel, particularly Tracker’s hatred of women. I found this particularly tiresome at times because in some cases, it seemed excessive. For example, Tracker’s dislike of Sangoma, the antiwitch who protected vulnerable children, was inexplicable. Even more exasperating is that with the exception of Sangoma, all the women in the novel who Tracker instinctively dislikes, all turn out to be villains or get murdered. Also, his attitude toward Sogolon, the Moon Witch, when they first meet is equally puzzling because Tracker suspects her of deceit from the very beginning without any evidence that Sogolon was untrustworthy. Had I not read the Book of Night Women with its courageous and complex female characters prior to reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf, I would have taken Tracker’s intense misogyny as a reflection of James’ own views toward women.
Furthermore, I am unsure where the plot can go based on how Black Leopard, Red Wolf ended. Many (if not all) of the main plot points were so neatly wrapped up that it isn’t clear what books 2 and 3 could add…and to be honest, despite my high rating for Black Leopard, Red Wolf, I am not sure I would even want to read books 2 or 3 because of the graphic violence of book 1. A book club member summed up my thoughts quite well when she said that after all that Tracker has been through in this book, it just seems cruel and unnecessary to put him through anymore. Tracker’s relationship with Mossi is so deep and transformative and his friendship with Leopard and other members of the fellowship so distinctive that I just don’t see how any of these relationships can be improved upon or replicated in a second book, without looking like a cheap imitation of the first book.
In interview before the book came out, James had referred to Black Leopard, Red Wolf as the African Game of Thrones, a description that he eventually backed away from. This review of Black Leopard, Red Wolf provides a great analysis of why James’ fantasy trilogy is nothing like Game of Thrones, one reason being that the former lacks the political intrigue of the latter. Another review compares Black Leopard, Red Wolf to the Odyssey, The Lord of the Rings and even the Epic of Gilgamesh. For his part, James talks about drawing inspiration from classics of Western literature including the epic poem Beowulf. Other book reviewers who are more in tune with the fantasy/adventure genre have compared Black Leopard, Red Wolf to contemporary fiction like The Winged Histories (2016) by Sofia Samatar and The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps(2015) by Kai Ashante Wilson.
I give Black Leopard, Red Wolf 4 out of 5 stars because despite the violence and meanderings of the plot, I find the world that James created and the characters he described, engaging and unique in the ways that only a mature author with several books (and awards) under his belt could pull off. Actor and producer Michael B. Jordan purchased film rights to the book even before it was released and I really look forward to a movie version of Black Leopard, Red Wolf because I think the weaknesses of the novel could be ironed out with a good screenplay and good actor/actresses. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is certainly not a book for everyone but if you are adventurous enough to try it, I promise that you have never read a book like this before!