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Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James4.5 stars
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Even if it weren’t riding a wave of pre-release hype based on its author’s reputation as a winner of the Man Booker Prize, Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf would be a landmark epic fantasy. More than perhaps any recent work in the field since Steven Erikson wrapped the Malazan Book of the Fallen, this is a story that takes the “epic” aspect of the genre seriously and takes a running jump into the deep end with both feet.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf isn’t interested in any rules but its own, carving its own niche within the genre. It has a way of feeling both old and new at the same time. You haven’t experienced any book quite like this before. Yet it feels legitimately ancient, as if it carries the weight of 4,000 years of legend. Whatever expectations you might be bringing to the story — including the simplistic idea that this is an “African Game of Thrones” — should be thrown out right now.

I won’t even begin to guess what James’s following among literary fiction fans will think of this fever dream of a novel. For fantasy readers, I can point to a few antecedents that may help get the water warm. Readers of N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy will have experienced the kind of immersive, often sensually overwhelming worldbuilding James offers, as well as a story that plays out on an enormous canvas while drawing its readers in emotionally with intimate attention to character relationships, especially among families, as well as the trauma of feeling uprooted and displaced. If you’ve read Kai Ashante Wilson, then you’ll be ready for this book’s amped-up homoeroticism. Finally, readers who go way back will pick out some possible influence from Charles Saunders, a mostly-forgotten writer from the 1970s who created Imaro, a series of stories that were basically Black Conan, and which, like this book, took place in a richly imagined mythic Africa unmarred by Western colonialism.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is yet very much its own animal, a book that has no interest in offering you comfort or safe harbor as it propels you through a dense, often bewildering maze of an adventure. But like any maze, the book is meticulously constructed with close attention to detail. Even when it feels deliberately disorienting, Marlon James is in control of everything on the page.

Our protagonist is Tracker, one of the Ku people. He has no other name. One of his eyes originally belonged to a wolf — still does, actually; it’s on loan. When we meet him, he is in prison, being interrogated by an Inquisitor. We’re not sure exactly where he’s locked up at first, only that he’s not a cooperative inmate, having killed his five cellmates. But then, they started it.

Tracker is being questioned about a boy. From the outset, we know this part of the story didn’t turn out well. “The child is dead,” Tracker says. “There is nothing left to know.” He then goes on to fill six hundred more pages with everything that there is, in fact, left to know. The quest for the boy, while hardly unimportant, really turns out to be a McGuffin. The dramatic meat of the book is Tracker’s personal journey, and how his adventures will change him, how he will learn to process and confront deep traumas from his past so that he can shape his present and his future.

For the first hundred pages, Tracker’s narration centers on his youth. We learn of a troubled, to say the least, family history, and through this, we learn about the cultures and the world at large. James has the knack of worldbuilding as an emergent part of the narrative. He never infodumps, he simply lets us experience this world through Tracker’s eyes and through his experiences. We learn of the North and South Kingdoms, and how both realms have mad rulers who are itching for war. We learn that though this is largely a patriarchal society, women hold a fair amount of power, particularly in the use of magic, and even until just a few generations back in the role they played in determining royal lines of succession. We visit lavish metropolises and modest villages, and a fortress city built on giant trees that grow hundreds and hundreds of feet into the sky. We travel on the back of an aquatic creature so huge it’s an actual island, and we encounter psychotic apes, one very intelligent water buffalo, and flying vampire beasts that draw out their victims’ blood and replace it with lightning.

Tracker’s gift is his nose, a sense of smell so precise that he can pinpoint individuals miles away like a super-powered bloodhound. After fleeing home and the violent man he’s only just learned was not his father, Tracker takes up with a witch — or more precisely, an antiwitch — who rescues unwanted children, some with bizarre physical deformities, who would have otherwise been killed outright. Though Tracker doesn’t know it yet, they’ll be the closest thing he has to family. Here Tracker also meets a man called the Leopard, because that’s what he shape-shifts into. Leopard will become the kind of lifelong friend that Tracker fights and falls out with as much as he feels love and loyalty towards. The complex relationship dynamic between these two is just one of many things that add tension and release to the narrative.

Years pass, and Tracker earns his living as a kind of ancient African private eye, sniffing out wayward husbands and such. Leopard shows up out of the blue, and offers Tracker work locating a small boy who has been missing for three years. Multiple people seem to be searching for the kid, including Amadu, a noxious slave trader; the Sogolon, a moon witch; and Bunshi, a mysterious woman who shape-shifts into a kind of black oil that oozes down walls and along floors. Tracker is skeptical of the whole situation. No one seems to be telling a consistent story about the circumstances behind the boy’s abduction, let alone who the boy even is, why he’s so important, and why people end up violently dead wherever the boy gets taken. And Tracker is also sure any small child gone for three years, even if he is still alive, will be so completely bonded to his kidnappers that rescuing him is pointless.

But Tracker goes along with the plan, only to learn to his horror that one of the mercenaries on the search team he’ll be joining is a man named Nyka, a former companion who committed a horrific act of betrayal. (The betrayal that caused Tracker to lose one of his eyes, in fact.) So it is that vengeance, as much as anything else, becomes a huge motive for Tracker. But as the story progresses and the fellowship, so to speak, splits up and reforms and splits up time and again, Tracker unexpectedly meets characters with whom he’ll share new bonds. There is Mossi, a prefect in the city of Kongor who joins the search without intending to, and who becomes the person who shows Tracker real love for perhaps the very first time. And there’s Sadogo, a member of the Ogo race of giants — although he really hates that term. He’s big enough to punch holes through solid rock, but there’s also a real pathos to his character. Drawn into the life of being a hired killer for one of the Southern kings, Sadogo actually feels every death he has caused very deeply, and his monologue halfway through the book recounting his life story is a little masterpiece of writing all on its own.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is an unflinchingly adult story, packed to the very rafters with graphic sex, graphic violence, and graphic sexual violence. But it also has a rich, ribald — well, to be honest, perfectly filthy — sense of humor. And James’s characters are, at their very best, drawn with great warmth and compassion. (Though it must be said in perfect honesty that the book’s female characters tend to be less sympathetic.) Tracker isn’t often easy to like, but he’s compelling and very human in all his flaws and rough edges. That first hundred pages I mentioned earlier are instrumental in helping readers acclimate to the story’s unique challenges, particularly Tracker’s narration, the use of dialect and syntax, the way Tracker will often bounce events around in sequence. Much of the experience of the book is in learning your own strategies for reading it and absorbing its distinct voice. It might sound like James is asking a bit much of the reader here, but stick with it and the rewards are plentiful. If anything, it can be a bit too much, leaving your head practically swimming. My solution was to give myself plenty of time, not to rush.

In the end, there’s so much here that it’s hard to fathom Black Leopard, Red Wolf has two entire sequels coming. Naturally the explicit nature of much of the content alone dictates that it isn’t a book for everyone.

But once the book gets you under its spell it’s hard to break free. And for all his literary pedigree, it’s obvious that Marlon James is just having a complete blast with all of this. When it’s time to turn on the carnage and get down to some bone-crunching fight scenes, James throws himself into the action with so much gusto it’s as if he’s imagining himself directing a Marvel movie. Sure, the book could have used plenty of tightening here and there — which is something I find to say about nearly any fantasy that tips the scales at 600 pages or more — but for the most part, Black Leopard, Red Wolf manages to be that rare book that’s an intellectual feast, an emotional odyssey, and a straight-up kick in the ass all at once. It’s a novel that claws, bites, and draws blood. You wouldn’t have it any other way.

Followed by a sequel.