Marlon James, winner of the Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, has become one of the most sought-after authors heading into 2019. With four novels under his belt already, he unleashes his latest with Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first entry in the planned Dark Star trilogy, on a crowd ever-hungry for more of his tales.
And it is a tale. Even from the first sentence – the child is dead – it takes you on a roller coaster that doesn’t ever seem to stop. The story centers around Tracker, who tells us a tale about his search for a mysterious boy essential to the future of the kingdom. The reason why they choose Tracker for the task is because he has a famous ‘nose’ for locating missing people. He proceeds to weave together an epic story which spans from his childhood until his present moment.
There are multiple characters thrown in as Tracker goes on his quest, some with names and some identified merely by description, and who may or may not be helpful to his cause. It’s up to him to discover this on his own. The tale is full of riddles, half-truths, cryptic messages along with mythical creatures, witches, shapeshifters, and vampires, helping to create a melting pot of almost every known African myth. There were times when I felt lost as characters are tossed into the mix. And since it’s a planned trilogy, I can only hope James has a reason for introducing so many in such a tight timespan.
The story is a raw and visceral tale told from one person’s perspective, as if to maintain its own truth. But how can you even believe everything Tracker tells you? Even in his mind, it seems fantastical. From the moment he discovers his father is not his father but really his grandfather, and the uncle he killed is really his brother, Tracker’s world is flipped upside down. Everything he knew to be true is now up for question. In a way, it sets the reader up to believe that things are not always what they seem in his world.
It is dense tale with an African cadence, an interesting choice which provides a musical quality to your reading. However, if you’re not accustomed to reading in this way, it can take some time to orient yourself to its particular flow. James’ style adds a specific quality to each character’s voice and you can (almost) hear the motivation behind what they’re saying. And even when you finally do understand, you almost wish you hadn’t; his dialogue is full of double entendres and euphemisms dealing with violence against children, including rape, child sacrifice, and bestiality throughout the story. If you have any qualms about reading descriptive detail about such things, please do not read this book.
James has a magnetic way of weaving words together to form a story that lured me in, despite the difficulty of letting the African cadence wash over me. Page after page of mishaps, violence, and adventures, it just doesn’t stop. It’s relentless in pulling you along, engulfing you in its story and not letting up, even at the end. Perhaps this onslaught by James is setting up for his next two books, or perhaps it was a mistake on his part. It’s hard to tell until this planned trilogy wraps up.
There is a line in the adventure where a character says: No story is so simple. And it’s true. Even when telling a story from an incident you’ve experienced, it’s merely your perspective. It’s not necessarily the truth. And by the end of this book, it’ll make you question what you consider is the truth.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a book for adventurers who want to be taken on a ride through the mythologies of Africa, who want to be taken to the edge so they can stare down into the crevasse and understand that what they know is barely scratching the surface of truth. Because what is truth anyway? Apart from the overt descriptions of violence – especially those relating to children – there’s much to absorb here, but those who stick with it should find a striking beginning to what’s guaranteed to be a trilogy unlike anything on the horizon.