“Black Leopard, Red Wolf” is a book that breaks the rules. Even in the fantasy genre, where anything can happen, Marlon James has taken things even further. It’s a story with nearly hallucinatory qualities, told as if around a campfire in a dense, dark forest — or perhaps, more accurately, traversed in one long fever dream.
But “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” is set apart by more than its characteristically Jamesian (Marlon, not Henry) dark, noir aesthetic and four-page-long character list.
For readers unfamiliar with Marlon James, his 2019 PEN Out Loud conversation with Salman Rushdie is a great introduction. He is wry, clever and never afraid to poke fun at the literary establishment. In 2015, he won the prestigious Booker Prize for his novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” which was hailed by critics as destined “to be seen as a classic of our times.”
In the wake of his win and its concomitant international recognition, James turned to the archives, delving into 5,000 years of African history and mythology on an extensive research expedition. He emerged two years later with his plan for the Dark Star Trilogy. “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” is book one.
Pinning down exactly how to succinctly describe this 620-page book is immensely challenging. In a broad sense, it tells of the years-long journey of a band of misfits sent in search of a stolen child, but things get far more complicated from there. The group tracks the child and his captors across the entirety of James’ richly imagined world, through tight city streets and labyrinthine jungles, but they always seem one step behind.
While each member of the group has been specially chosen because of some unique ability — Tracker, for example, can “track” a scent no matter how far away — they rarely get along. Over time, the line between friend and foe becomes impossibly blurry, and mysteries about the group’s patron, as well as the child himself, call the entire endeavor into question.
There are shape-shifting leopard men, powerful witches, lightning people and a startlingly intelligent buffalo.
It has inspired comparisons with ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Game of Thrones,’ which the depth and complexity of James’ fantasy world certainly merits. However, in other ways, it is precisely the opposite. This is what makes this book (and the planned trilogy) so unique.
First and foremost, in a fantasy genre historically dominated by Eurocentric narratives, “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” entirely throws out the script — James has crafted a world unlike any other by drawing from his years of research.
At a Politics & Prose reading shortly after the book’s release, James said that “the novel almost started writing itself” while he was researching.
The book’s other unique element is his planned trilogy structure — James takes unreliable narration to a new extreme.
The story is framed, much like Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Sympathizer,” as a sort of confession. Tracker, the book’s main character, is sitting (presumably in captivity) with someone we only know as the Inquisitor, explaining the wild story of the previous years.
Rather than each successive book in the series telling the next stage of the story, James plans for them to all tell the same story — from different perspectives. For the entirety of book one, the reader sees the years-long saga through Tracker’s eyes.
Book two, which was just released this February, is told from the perspective of Sologon, a powerful witch and another member of the group searching for the child. Reading book one filled me with questions on nearly every page. There are sections where Tracker and Sologon vehemently disagree or part ways for long stretches of time. What is going on in the intervening months? When they disagree, who is telling the truth?
And of course, the inevitable question is, even at the conclusion of the trilogy, after hearing three different perspectives on the events of the journey, will we really know what happened?
The only way to find the answers is to read on.
For all its enticing draws, the book sags at times. The prose is spare, simple and at times a bit dead. This is, at least in part, because the story is told mostly through dialogue (maybe roughly 60 to 75 percent). While this is a fascinating craft choice at first, it eventually leads to chapter-long strings of somewhat repetitive conversations that only incrementally push the story forward.
As an ardent lover of long, meandering books, even I must admit that “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” could have benefitted from a bit more editing.
While I can’t honestly say I loved reading the book (nor can I highly recommend it as a “must-read”), I nevertheless feel compelled to recognize its brilliance. One can only imagine the complex overlaying of contradicting stories that James plans to weave together throughout the trilogy.
In the end, what truly happens in the roaming story of the Dark Star Trilogy may be up to the reader. As Tracker says at the conclusion of his testimony: “What is truth when it always expands and shrinks? Truth is just another story.”
Ryan Lillestrand PZ ’23 is a book columnist for TSL. In his constant search for great, big, meandering novels, he is now embarking on Roberto Bolaño’s magnum opus, 2666.