Y’all, Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a miracle. It’s a gift from Anansi himself. This book. This book. THIS BOOK.
Dead. I’m dead. I have died. It is so good it killed me. Murdered by my own ARC. Please bury me in my To Read pile.
The basic story is this: a man known only as Tracker, and several of his acquaintances and enemies, are hired to find a boy. The boy is missing (or not) and may be dead (or not). Of the hired group, there are those wish to find the boy, those who plan to kill him, and those who want him to remain missing. Some are human, some witches, some mercenaries, and some are magical beings. Who is the boy? What happened to him? What was really going on? Is Tracker lying? What if he’s really telling the truth?
But the plot isn’t really the plot. Finding the boy provides the skeleton, but the muscles, blood, and heat come from everything that happens along the way. This is no stroll through a dreamland of fairies and pixie dust. James drags us through a nightmare world of shapeshifters, witches, mermaids, mad scientists, cannibals, vampires, giants, sadistic slavers, selfish monarchs, and a sentient buffalo.
But it’s even more than curious creatures and double-crossing ex-boyfriends. Rage and lust, life and death, kindly monsters and monstrous men, horrific violence and blossoming romance, betrayal and abandonment and unimaginable loss. Black Leopard, Red Wolf muses on the meaning of life itself. Tracker undergoes the worst of the worst of the worst as his mercenary job turns into a journey of revenge and punishment.
As much as I love fantasy, epic fantasy isn’t really my cup of tea. Or, more accurately, old school style epic fantasy. I’ve tried reading Lord of the Rings half a dozen times over the years and never managed to make it past the first 20 pages or so. The A Song of Ice and Fire series holds so little interest for me that I genuinely keep forgetting it exists until someone whinges about George R. R. Martin’s writing pace. Epic fantasy is overloaded with novels about cishet white dudes battling each other over land and women. When a woman does appear, she tends to be a Strong Female Character, not to mention the only one who isn’t a sex fiend, prude, or crone. Queer and/or POC hardly exist at all. That doesn’t mean epic fantasy can’t be enjoyed if laden with tropes—what is fiction if not a collection of tropes?—just that those particular tropes don’t entice me.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is set in a fantasy version of Africa that is, as James described it, “a little bit Dark Ages in Europe… sort of after the fall of Rome, but before the rise of Florence.” In the real world, while Europe was struggling to survive, the African continent was awash with expansive empires and wealthy kingdoms. For epic fantasy to focus almost exclusively on Western Europe and the British Isles means ignoring a treasure trove of storytelling opportunities—opportunities James eagerly takes on. If you know even a little about the history of the African continent, you’ll recognize a lot of elements. Just as Game of Thrones is a mirror world version of the British Isles, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is one of sub-Saharan Africa.
In most indigenous folktales, death and violence are a way of life. So too are bizarre magic and fantastical adventures. African mythologies permeate Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Anansi the Spider doesn’t appear, but the feel, tone, and implications of his stories do. This isn’t just an African twist on Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings. This is a mythology of surrealism and brutality. It’s even told in a folktale-ish way. The story opens with Tracker already in prison for killing a child. His responses to his interrogator form the bulk of the book. We aren’t reading about what happened to Tracker, we’re hearing his own story as he chooses to tell it. It’s written like it’s spoken, making it closer to epic poetry and ancient oral traditions than Tolkien and Martin. We may as well be in the room alongside Tracker and the interrogator. On top of all that, James has to be one of the best dialogue writers working today. Every single line was perfection, an exercise in double entendres colliding with doublespeak and sarcasm masquerading as the truth.
Clearly James is more enamored with epic fantasy than I am, a love that bursts through every page of Black Leopard, Red Wolf. In an interview, he talked about how part of his inspiration for the Dark Star trilogy came from the lack of diversity in The Hobbit:
“It made me realize that there was this huge universe of African history and mythology and crazy stories, these fantastic beasts and so on, that was just waiting there. And I’m a big sci-fi geek—I love my Lord of the Rings, I love my Angela Carter and my Dragonslayer. I think the argument ended with me saying, “You know what? Keep your d— Hobbit.”
With that he hits the nail on the head of what is missing for me in most epic fantasy: representation and inclusion. Why do we have to keep writing about cishet white men when there’s a whole world out there of new and diverse stories to tell?
Fantasy has exploded with diversity in recent years, especially in Young Adult fiction. With epic fantasy, the tide is turning more slowly, but QPOC authors are turning the stodgy old subgenre inside out. If Charles R. Saunders’ Imaro series opened the door to new ways of telling epic fantasy, and N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy leapt over the threshold, then Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf just ripped the whole damn door off its hinges.
Originally published in November 2018.
Alex Brown is a YA librarian by day, local historian by night, pop culture critic/reviewer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, check out her endless barrage of cute rat pics on Instagram, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.