Book review: Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

If you exercise it properly, the imagination is a vast and wondrous place.

It can also be thrillingly dangerous and intensely emotionally resonant in the most visceral and cuttingly real of ways as Marlon James makes vibrantly and chillingly clear in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, a book which brings together African mythology and history with the innermost workings of the author’s fecund and sometimes terrifyingly rich imagination.

As fantasy novels, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a massive and welcome departure from the usual Euro-centric fantasy tales, a novel which never once pretends that happy endings are a foregone conclusion and that right will always triumph over wrong.

Set on that most uncertain of bases, the novel is a rip-roaring ride that takes you to the depths of the underworld, cities of majesty and wonder and darkest intent and rampant hypocrisy and into the twisted minds and hearts of women and men, both mortal and not, human and far beyond, for an exploration of what makes people of all stripes and reality tick.

Be warned – if you’re expecting some sort of sanitised, Disney-fied romp through African mythology you’ll be greatly shocked and wholly disappointed; if, however, you are willing to deep dive into the very depths of the darkness and goodness that infuses our world, and take nothing for granted and drop all your expectations of how well-behaved a fantasy novel should be, you will be delighted and thrilled beyond measure.

“We waited until the Leopard came back, in the shape of a man with the frown gone from his face. Now he walked behind us, sometimes so far back that I thought he went off on his own, sometimes so close I could feel him sniff me. On him I smelled the leaves he ran through and the fresh wet of dew, the dead scent of the girl and the fresh musk of the grave dirt under his fingernails. The sun was almost ready to go.” (P. 41)

Black Leopard, Red Wolf bounds between the world as think we know it with rules and regulations, laws and obligations and another world entirely which exists alongside it and which, while observing some of its morality and ethics, is unbound in ways that horrify, thrill, excite and dismay, promising a ride through dimensions and shades of “human” behaviour that you won’t soon forget.

The novel is centred on a man simply known as the Tracker who has a nose for scents, so profoundly in fact that once he grabs a hold of a smell he is able to follow that person or being anywhere, until they either die or disappear of their own or others’ accord.

A refugee from a violent and broken family which gives a whole new meaning to dysfunctional, he must survive entirely on his own resources, which is where his supreme tracking ability and lack of squeamishness when it comes to blood, guts, death and violence comes into very handy play.

Stripped, so he says, of any need for attachment and love, he threatens, cajoles and kills without mercy, ready to execute his latest warrant without prejudice, which makes him very effective in his job but wholly separated from the rest of the human race with whom, by virtue of his occupation, he is at best tenuously connected to, anyway.

Marlon James (image courtesy official Marlon James Twitter account)

As protagonists go he likely sounds like wholly unempathetic and the last person you would want to spend 620 pages with.

But as Marlon James, whose capacity for the expression of the most intimate of emotional moments within the most violent and action-packed of scenes is damn near unparalleled, creates him and gives him life, the Tracker, a queer man whose relationships with a number of other male characters are all parts of the sexual, emotional and darkly dysfunctional spectrum, is the one person in this dense and twisting of stories with whom you feel the most affinity.

As he and a company of hunters which includes a were-man who can switch from leopard to man and back again with impunity, a broken, bitter, smart-talking witch of three hundred years and a man who looks like a giant but who is not set out to find a lost little boy who may be the key to the future of the African kingdoms in which the tale takes place – trust me, this may sound like a standard fantasy storyline but it is anything but, in keeping with James’ refreshingly unorthodox approach to storytelling – you come to realise that for all his bluster and bravado that he needs no one, that the Tracker is as human as the rest of us.

This becomes apparent again and again as he rescues a village of children who represent the outcast of highly-superstitious societies, takes actions that, strictly speaking according to his fairly unadorned code of morality aren’t necessary and take away from the task at hand, and as he articulates again and again, his disdain for empty religious beliefs, fossilised codes of conduct and empty, sclerotic tradition.

Along among the characters, save for the two men with whom he forms the closest bonds, he is the one for all his propensity for death and violence, who chooses the very best of humanity almost every time.

“‘Every person I have met says to me, Tracker, you have nothing to live for or die for. You are a man who if he were to vanish this night, nobody’s life would be any worse. Maybe this is the of thing to die for … Say it.’
‘Say what?’
‘Say this is bigger than me and us, that this not our fight, that is the way of the foolish and not the wise, this will make no difference …Well, what are you going to say?’
‘Which of these mangy sons of bitches do we kill first?’
My eyes popped wide open.” (P. 436)

He doesn’t always execute on it perfectly, and is just as prone as anyone to let anger and vengeance cloud and sully his more noble of intentions, but he is a beacon of morality, honesty and truthfulness in a world packed to the absolute demon-crawling, blood-soaked brim with subterfuge, lies, intrigue and betrayal.

All of which make for an invigorating tale, which Black Leopard, Red Wolf is and then some.

Quite apart from its embrace of a mythology and history which is far too often given short or no shrift in Western storytelling, and its graphic and epic nature which is awe-inspiring in its scope and ambition, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is deeply, resonantly, affectingly human.

It may be a story that takes place in place and among beings who are anything but human, but through the Tracker, it becomes a brilliantly resonant exploration of emotional truth, of the need for connection, love and belonging we all have, regardless of our protestations to the contrary, and how a lust for power, ambition and control can destroy all that and corrupt people and creatures into nightmarish twisted manifestations of what they once were.

Richly expansive, in themes, characters and emotion, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is utterly enthralling, an epic story that bows to no one, which makes no apologies for the strength and power of its storytelling nor for the darkness of the world around us, while arguing that maybe just maybe, flawed though it is, that there is some goodness and hope in this world, even if it is always dangling on the edge of a precipice of loss, violence and sadness from which it may never return.

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