Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

When Marlon James announced that his next project would be an African-set, epic fantasy trilogy, I have to admit that my reaction was skepticism. I first encountered James when I read his second novel, The Book of Night Women (2009), which used heady language and uncompromising descriptions of violence to address the physical and psychological impact of slavery on its victims. It marked James out as an author to follow. But I've been a genre fan for a while, and I've seen too many authors come from the outside—from literary fiction, or from outside of fantasy—and get heralded as the ones who are going to save epic fantasy from itself. Especially in the current moment, in which there are so many authors testing the boundaries of what epic fantasy can do—people like Sofia Samatar, Kai Ashante Wilson, Jeannette Ng, K. Arsenault Rivera—I wasn't really certain what James, with all his skill, could bring to the table.

On the other hand, one obvious answer to that question could be found simply in the project's description. As much as epic fantasy has been changing and growing over the last decade or so, there still isn't a lot of it that is set in African or African-derived settings. The fact that James had taken the publicity and cachet that came with winning the Booker (for A Brief History of Seven Killings, in 2014) and announced his intention to write an "African Game of Thrones" (a description which he has, in subsequent interviews, demurred from a little) felt remarkable in its own right. It hasn't been that long since such a project would have been unimaginable, much less with the publicity and prestige launch that Black Leopard, Red Wolf has received. So maybe, I thought to myself, my skepticism might more accurately be described as cynicism? Maybe a gifted writer with a different perspective can bring something new to the form?

It turns out, I was both right and wrong to be skeptical. James clearly knows his stuff. Black Leopard, Red Wolf has many distinctive traits and pleasures, but in terms of the story it tells, it does exactly what the capsule description of "African-set epic fantasy" seems to promise. It is set in a quasi-medieval, fantasized Africa, where nations and city-states (probably fictionalized versions of real entities that I don't recognize) grapple for power even as currents of magic and horror influence and are influenced by geopolitical turmoil. It even opens with the traditional fantasy-world map, which marks out the various polities in its setting, each, as we will learn when we visit them, with its own distinct customs, social organization, and culture.

Into this setting, Black Leopard, Red Wolf injects a quest narrative, in which a ragtag crew of misfits with various magical powers and sad backstories face perils, monsters, and double-crosses before realizing that they have become embroiled in a plot that affects the highest reaches of their society. There are some obvious Tolkien references—at one point, the band of nine travelers is referred to as a "fellowship", and a sequence in which they debate whether to go around or through a dense forest where, one of them insists, they will meet monsters and mind-altering magic is a blatant reference to the passage of Mirkwood in The Hobbit.

James clearly includes these references in order to confound the obvious associations they have for fantasy readers—the characters' fellowship is riven by conflict and long-simmering enmity; the novel's Gandalf figure, the witch Sogolon, is revealed as manipulative, monomaniacal, and ultimately misguided; the magical, Rivendell-like city where everyone lives in beautiful platforms at the top of trees turns out to be a classist dystopia, ruled by an egomaniacal queen and powered by an army of brainwashed slaves. But, perhaps because the world of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is more often its own creation than a reflection of anyone else's worldbuilding, the story set in it defaults to the familiar templates of the genre more often than it reacts against them. The novel ends up feeling like a very familiar sword and sorcery adventure, albeit one with a setting that is still uncommon in the genre. It's left to the reader to decide whether the resulting work is more conventional or more groundbreaking.

One thing that James definitely does differently from many other epic fantasy authors is how he structures the novel. In its early chapters, in which we are introduced to Tracker, our otherwise nameless narrator and protagonist whose preternatural sense of smell can track people and objects across continents, the narrative jumps in time, elides important information, stands still for long stretches, and most of all uses Tracker's own ingrained resistance to being made part of anyone else's story to stave off anything resembling a narrative. The novel is framed by interludes in which Tracker tells his tale to an inquisitor as part of an investigation into a crime whose full contours we won't understand until its end. As the inquisitor writes,
The Tracker's account continues to perplex even those of uncommon mind. He travels deep in strange lands, as if telling tales to children at night, or reciting nightmares to the fetish priest for Ifa divination. ... He goes into the sight, smell, and taste of one memory, with perfect recall of the smell in the crack of one man's buttocks, or the perfume of Malakal virgins in bedchambers coming out of windows he walked underneath, or the sight of the glorious sunlight marking the slow change of seasons. But of spaces between moons, a year, three years, he says nothing.
This is James's way of acknowledging the skip-start nature of these early parts of the novel, the way he resists kicking off his story in a way that can make the reading experience a frustrating one, but which also, as the quote observes, recalls traditional storytelling methods far more than commercial epic fantasy. (Gautam Bhatia, in his review of Black Leopard, Red Wolf in Strange Horizons, argues that it is this storytelling mode that sets the novel apart from its genre and makes it distinctly African.) In the novel's first hundred pages, Tracker runs away from an unhappy home, stumbles upon his ancestral village, learns a bunch of family secrets, including the fact that he is expected to take up a blood feud that has already claimed several generations in his family, runs away again, becomes the quasi-guardian of a group of children who have been abandoned or sold by their families because of superstitions about various birth defects, and meets Leopard, a beast who can change into a man (or perhaps vice versa) who becomes his first true friend. It's only in the final pages of the opening segment that something resembling a standard fantasy plot rears its head, when, after a separation of some years during which Tracker plies his gift to locate lost treasures, absconded wives, and abandoning husbands, he and Leopard meet again. The latter recruits him for a mission to rescue a child who has been kidnapped and made to serve a group of supernatural monsters.

Another distinctive trait of the novel is Tracker himself, a sour, confrontational type of person always ready with a smart-aleck reply. "Like, I like. Dislike, I love. Disgust, I can feel. Loathing, I can grab in the palm of my hand and squeeze. And hatred, I can live in hatred for days", Tracker explains of himself. And indeed, he spends much of the novel's early chapters delaying the plot's beginning because he hates the idea of being under anyone's command, of being part of a group or accepting anyone's mission. That there is a great, gaping wail of pain and loneliness at the center of all this oppositional behavior should come as no surprise to anyone—from a very early point in the novel, Tracker's adopts as a catchphrase the saying "nobody loves no one", which should really tell you all you need to know about him. But this doesn't make him a particularly original character, nor does it allay the frustration of watching him pick pointless fights that end up preventing the actual story from happening.

(Another issue with Tracker is the fact that he has serious problems with women, and particularly women with authority and power. That he is called out on this attitude by several characters, that the accusation of misogyny clearly bothers him even as he can't entirely refute it, and that he even seems to make some progress towards a more healthy approach in the book's final chapters, are indications that James has given his protagonist this character trait with deliberate intent. But this still means that we spend some six hundred pages in the head of a man who views any woman with power as an enemy and seeks to undermine her. In addition, the novel's plot can't seem to avoid validating Tracker's attitude—most of the women he interacts with do end up being villains, and almost all of them are dead, defeated, or outsmarted by the end of the book.)

Black Leopard, Red Wolf takes a more conventional shape in its middle segment, after Tracker gets sufficiently over himself to allow the quest to start. Joining a band of travelers that includes a witch, a giant, and one of his oldest enemies, he traverses the book's fantasy-world map in search of the missing child. (Oddly enough, it's in these chapters that Leopard disappears for what feels like a very weird and underexplained reason; perhaps this will be elaborated on in the sequels, which are supposed to cover the novel's events from a different character's point of view.) These chapters deploy a lot of classic epic fantasy tropes while also making tremendous use of the novel's African setting and James's research into it. We travel to walled cities, dusty archives, mysterious forests where giant spiders roam, and a network of magical doors that transport people instantaneously across the novel's fantasy map.

Through it all, James's rich, sometimes overheated language gives the novel a personality all its own, while also sometimes making it a bit of a slog. He's great at capturing the sense of a place—the conformity and legalism of the city of Kongor, or the stratified walled city of Malakal, where concentric walls divide the social classes from one another. He's equally good at inventing fantasy monsters (or repurposing them from African folklore) to haunt, attack, and viciously kill members of the party. But all that richness can come to feel overbearing, even in the more straightforward chapters of the novel's middle segments in which the plot proceeds in a fairly orderly manner.

It's also in these chapters that the novel introduces its first genuinely likable character, the prefect Mossi. A guardian of the peace in Kongor, where the missing child was kidnapped, he starts out investigating Tracker and eventually joins the mission after the villain's tendrils turn out to have infested his police department. He is almost immediately positioned as Tracker's potential love interest, and James's handling of their burgeoning romance is affecting if a bit on the predictable side. What's more important is how Mossi brings Tracker out of himself, forcing him to acknowledge his failings and try to work on them, and encouraging him to reach out to others and own his feelings when he experiences loss and grief. (The fact that Tracker is gay is introduced with little fanfare very early in the novel, and what's mainly interesting about it is how different communities in the novel's setting have various attitudes towards homosexuality and other forms of queerness, from total acceptance to violent persecution.)

The only problem with Mossi is that he is so perfect and so nice that one very quickly starts gaming out when his inevitable death will happen. And that, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with Black Leopard, Red Wolf as a whole. The only things that are surprising about this novel are the worldbuilding details that draw on a cultural and folklore tradition that most epic fantasy doesn't look to. And while that's something to be celebrated, it doesn't make the novel as a whole particularly gripping.

While reading, I found myself thinking of Samatar's The Winged Histories (2016), which also draws strongly on core epic fantasy tropes like lost princes, hardened warrior women, and mysterious monsters, but uses them to poke at the genre's conventions and say interesting things about history, legend, and imperialism. The contrast feels even more striking given that Samatar and James both deploy the same plot point—apparently taken from a real Ghanian social convention—in which the king is traditionally succeeded by his sister's son, and imagine a disruption of the social order when one king decides to establish his own dynasty.

Wilson's Sorcerer of the Wildeeps (2015) is another work to which I found myself comparing this novel, and here the similarities are even more profound. Like Black Leopard, Red Wolf, it depicts a doomed, passionate gay romance set against an epic fantasy backdrop, plays a lot of games with dialect that challenge readers' assumptions about what epic fantasy characters are "supposed" to sound like, and revels in overheated descriptions of squelchy, bloody battles with fantasy monsters. And in every case, it does these things to much greater effect as both a piece of storytelling and an investigation of the genre. So much of what James has done in this novel has been done better, and more effectively (not to mention at a shorter length) by other authors.

On the other hand, maybe this is me blaming James for writing the book he wanted to write, not the one I wanted to read. There is, however, a moment at the end of Black Leopard, Red Wolf where it feels like the book and I might be looking for the same thing. The tale of the quest for the missing child has concluded, but the novel still has at least a hundred pages left to go. And we still haven't learned why Tracker is being subjected to interrogation in the framing story. When he starts the next chapter of his story, he is a hardened man, even more detached from his emotions than he was at the beginning of the book. It's not hard to guess what has happened—think, basically, of the most banal motivation one can give a male character in an epic fantasy tale—but what's interesting is the suggestion of the shape James is about to give his story. Throughout the novel there have been hints of a greater struggle happening out of Tracker's and our view—a looming war, a succession struggle, public disputes over the continued role of slavery, warnings of danger coming from the west. But in its final chapters, instead of plugging into these currents and turning Tracker into a player in a wider narrative, the novel instead has him turn inwards, rejecting any allegiance except to his quest for vengeance, any consideration except his own grief and pain.

So, in its final pages, Black Leopard, Red Wolf becomes something that one doesn't tend to see in epic fantasy. Not a battle between good and evil, not a rollicking adventure in which mercenaries face off against horrors for little more than a payday, and not a Game of Thrones-esque geopolitical struggle. It is, instead, the story of a character, the tale of a broken man who, for a short time, was able to overcome his flaws and make a decent life for himself, and then lost it all. The novel's opening line—"The child is dead. There is nothing left to say."—reminds us that Tracker's quest will fail, and the rest of the story is merely elaborating on what that failure means and how it came about. That could be an interesting thing to do within the confines of this genre, reminding us that its characters are people, that their suffering isn't simply plot fodder, and that some wounds can't be healed with redemptive violence.

But of course, there are two more volumes to come in this trilogy, and it seems unlikely that Tracker will not appear in them, and thus that this is the end of his story. I suspect that I won't understand James's project with this story—and with this genre—until I've read all three volumes of the trilogy, and to be honest, based on my experience reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf, I'm not sure I feel very motivated to continue with it. I wish I had a stronger sense, coming out of this novel, of what it was trying to accomplish with this story, and whether its aims are something that is of interest to me.


Judy Krueger said…
Thanks for your review. I started the book a few nights ago and quickly realized I needed more brain cells than I had available at the moment. You have made me want to try it again.
jackd said…
Thank you! Especially for the comparison to Wilson's _Sorcerer of the Wildeeps_, which struck me for the very reasons you describe. Whether I'll ever read _Black Leopard, Red Wolf_ is an open question, probably until the other two volumes are out and there's some feedback on the entire story.

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