Until recently, Jamaican born writer Marlon James was known best for wining the Man Booker prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, but his latest novel, the sprawling epic fantasy Black Leopard, Red Wolf, is going to very much take place of what the writer is most associated with—there is no doubt.
“I wanted to reclaim all the stuff I like—court intrigue, monsters, magic,” James told The New Yorker last month, “I wanted black pageantry.” And that’s exactly what he’s achieved with this story of Tracker, an angry young protagonist who is known for his nose, and uses this power (alongside his ability to not be harmed by anything ‘born of metal’), to find what no one else can. Tracker, similar to the protagonist of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, has a most powerful sense of smell—he can smell below the surface to detect emotion; he can smell into distance and even time, and so has developed quite a reputation as the man who can find anything or anyone at all, and one who is willing to go anywhere it takes to search.
Joining Tracker are a number of characters with equally strange abilities, including the titular Leopard, a shapeshifter with whom Tracker shares a complicated past (the constant tension between the two of them features a deep love and a hatred too) but then, it seems Tracker shares a complicated past with quite a few characters. The crew have been hired to find a boy who has been missing for some years, and no one is quite certain who he is or why he’s missing—was he kidnapped? By whom? No one knows, and if anyone does, they aren’t telling the characters or the reader. The boy has something to do with the King, his leadership and the kingdom, and Tracker’s frustration at not knowing everything is second only to the readers’.
“There have been three who hired me to find this child. A slaver, a river spirit, and a witch. Between them, they have told me five stories so far of who this child is.”
“Five lies to find him or save him?”
Other than for clear cut profit, why is (or was, since we are being told about a search that has ended) Tracker determined to find this child? It’s because this book itself, of course, is a quest fantasy, a hero’s journey. But it’s a complicated, restlessly twisting, spiralling story that begins by telling its readers/listeners that it is a futile quest since ‘the child is dead. There is nothing left to know’. And yet …apparently there is plenty to know, because Tracker is narrating this lengthy story to an ‘inquisitor…[a] fetish priest’ who has him captive. Is the story then really about finding this boy, or more so about the journey that leads to Tracker confirming the child’s death? Or is the story about Tracker finding himself? Classically, quest fantasies are essentially about the hero finding himself or his own shadow self; understanding who and why he is who and how he is. Which in Tracker’s case is sensitive, angry, lonely and a lot more lost than those he has spent years finding.
A lot of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is gloriously rich, beautiful writing: visceral and muscular. James flexes often, and it’s always easy to appreciate, by the eye on the page and by the ear if you read out loud. The rhythms of the writing are very resonant of oral storytelling, which of course is the point. The narrative is bursting with stories even within that of Tracker’s quest—each character has a backstory of their own, each place they travel through has a history that must be told, each kingdom it’s own politics. All of these smaller stories branch off from the main arc, so it can be overwhelming at times, as fun and clever as it is, to not feel strongly tethered to one plot. But perhaps that is the point—this is a quest fantasy, after all—you may not need everything you find each time you stray off the path, but it all does make the journey more interesting. The paths here wander through an alternate Africa, a mythological place of magic and monsters and Rashomon-style varied truths laying uncomfortably against each other at every point of action.
In fact each part of the Dark Star trilogy will be this same story told from a different character’s perspective, examining how individual points of view can change the story being told, how there is no absolute ‘true story’, only individual truths for each person in a shared context. Certain aspects of this idea for the trilogy are exciting—there are many moments in Tracker’s story that could do with an alternate perspective to settle some confusion or validate a readers’ theories, for example. The worry is, will readers remember everything in each book well enough to note where the fine details change when the perspective does? Even within Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the truth isn’t concrete and changes frequently, as Tracker himself points out, ‘truth [changes] between one man saying the same thing twice.’
There are a number of occasions in the narrative when what is ‘real’ can easily be conflated with what is a surreal vision or hallucination Tracker is experiencing. It’s hard to tell whom to trust, especially since Tracker himself trusts no one and nothing, and we’re inclined to believe he has reason to be this suspicious. Tracker is told by his uncle, ‘You will be one always on the line between the two. You will always walk two roads at the same time. You will always feel the strength of one and the pain of the other’, and though this is directed at his sexuality, it is true for a great deal of what he experiences. Tracker, for all his anger and bitterness, is constantly drawn to the weak, the outcast and the maligned and so when he tells us he is honest, and that he does not change truth to appease anyone even if he’s shot as the messenger, we are automatically empathetic towards him.
‘I hear there is a queen in a kingdom far south who kills the man who brings her bad news. So do you wish for a story where the child is less dead? Truth changes shape just as the crocodile eats away the moon, and yet my story is the same today as it was three days past, and will be tomorrow, so fuck the gods and your questions.’
Some of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is outright frightening. It’s bloody and gory and vicious. Its pulpy, cinematic and sensuous landscapes shift fluidly, bodies change; the borders between life and death, between chaos and order, between seen and unseen worlds are nebulous and constantly ebbing. Nothing is completely linear or binary in this book—not the plot, not the characters, not the mythologies the narratives leans on. Everything is in flux and that’s what makes it fun, what makes it interesting—and complex, that there are many, many ‘fantastic beasts [with] fantastic urges’. The fact that the narrative is this intense for over 600 pages is what gets overwhelming, along with the fact that James has zero intentions of telling his readers what the ‘truth’ really is. As Tracker is told, Black Leopard, Red Wolf can be ‘such a puzzle … the more you tell me, the less I know’.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is available from Riverhead Books.
Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction & appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories & interviews writers for the Tor.com podcast Midnight in Karachi when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.