Black Leopard, Red Wolf (The Dark Star Trilogy, #1)
In the first novel in Marlon James’s Dark Star trilogy, myth, fantasy, and history come together to explore what happens when a mercenary is hired to find a missing child.
Tracker is known far and wide for his skills as a hunter: “He has a nose,” people say. Engaged to track down a mysterious boy who disappeared three years earlier, Tracker breaks his own rule of always working alone when he finds himself part of a group that comes together to search for the boy. The band is a hodgepodge, full of unusual characters with secrets of their own, including a shape-shifting man-animal known as Leopard.
Drawing from African history and mythology and his own rich imagination, Marlon James has written an adventure that’s also an ambitious, involving read. Defying categorization and full of unforgettable characters, Black Leopard, Red Wolf explores the fundamentals of truths, the limits of power, the excesses of ambition, and our need to understand them all.
Author: Marlon James | Publisher: Riverhead
Okay, wow. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a big, heavy, adult, epic fantasy novel that is truly without compare. I liked it and I’m glad that I read it, but it took a really, really long time and a lot of patience with myself to wade through the narrative. Roxanne Gay put it perfectly in her review: “Beautifully intense prose that doesn’t allow for lazy reading.”
The main character and narrator is named Tracker. He is telling the story to a priest while he sits in jail, after everything has already happened. We get a few other tales to build the world a bit and set the tone, and then he begins to talk about “the boy.”
At the start of the tale, Tracker leaves his terrible home and finds his way to his uncle’s house. There he learns more about his background — not all welcome information. He leaves again, this time with a companion, who takes him to the secret home of a sangoma (magical healer type of woman), who saves children with birth defects and other peculiarities that would have otherwise caused their families to kill them. This is also where he meets Leopard for the first time. Soon that world, too, is upturned, and he makes his way off.
Years later, the Leopard drags him into a proposed mission: to join an unlikely group of people and find a boy who has been kidnapped under mysterious circumstances, the details about which seem to constantly change depending on who’s telling the tale. He eventually agrees, and they set off. What follows is an adventure filled with mystery, magic, politics, love, betrayal, and more.
Alright, so here’s the thing about this book: It’s A LOT. It’s super dense. No joke — I read at the rate of about 30 pages an hour. It also took a really, really long time to find the plot. There’s so much exposition, and you think the plot has started, but then it switches again, and you still feel lost. I didn’t feel like I had a good handhold on what was going on until I was almost a third of the way in — which is about 200 pages. Plus, for many of us, it’s set in a world that’s really foreign to us, so you’re finding your way in many senses of the phrase. And the language is heavy, murky — beautiful and striking, but definitely not something you can speed read.
In fact, I read the first half of this book in April and then took a break from it until now, late July. I finished it on the first day of a 24in48 readathon — and it took me 11 hours to read the last 320 pages.
Also be warned that this book is graphic — in violence, in emotion, in sex, in pretty much everything. In fact, as a content warning, I’d stay away from this book if you have any of society’s most common triggers.
Also (although this is my fault because I didn’t read very much about the book before starting it), I hadn’t realized how much gayness is a central part of the narrative. There is also a central commentary on gender and misogyny. These elements really add so much to the story, and to the experience of reading it as a white, straight, cisgender person.
So final verdict: This book was a lot, but it was also really good. It’s extremely literary, and very dense. If you like to read books quickly, or if you’re looking for a more typical fantasy novel where you can get lost and go on an adventure and fall in love with characters, this is very likely not right for you. But if you are ready to commit to a high fantasy novel with big, epic themes about our society, and you have the time and patience to make it through, I don’t think you’ll regret this one.