Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James: A review

I've had this book in my reading queue for many months but just hadn't been able to work myself up to reading it. I was daunted by my experience with the author's previous book, the Booker Award-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings.  That one was a very difficult read for me. Did I really want to sail those waters again? Then on the very day that I finally decided to start reading, news came that the book had been longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award for fiction.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf, in case you haven't heard, is a quite surreal fantasy, the first book of a planned trilogy. It is set in Africa in an undesignated time and it draws heavily on what one is to assume are African myths. (Not being well-versed in those myths, I don't feel qualified to judge.) As in his previous book, James uses a lot of language for which I could find no reference or definition, and, once again, one is to suppose that the words have their root in African languages, but they could just as easily have been invented by the author, as in the Tolkein books. It would have been nice to know. As it is, if one doesn't know the words, one can only infer meaning from their context.

The protagonist of the story is a man who is known only as Tracker. He "has a nose" and is famous for being able to find lost things and people, even if they would prefer to stay lost. He is hired to find a missing boy who may be the rightful heir to the throne in this mythical empire. He accepts the assignment and heads off on his quest, much like Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring. Along the way, he gathers to him a motley crew of characters who go with him on the quest and either assist or impede him. Among them is the Leopard, a shape-shifting creature who is able to appear as animal or man. Tracker, who will become the Wolf, has a complicated relationship that includes sex with Leopard.

Sex, most of it violent, is an important component of the story. There is incest, pedophilia, bestiality, child abuse of various kinds, and rape is a constant. One seldom reads more than a few pages without encountering it again. Much of this sex is homosexual, though homophobia also features in the plot. Moreover, the women characters in the tale are all either whores or witches or sometimes both. Attitudes toward women, it is safe to say, are quite negative.

The plot features a series of violent encounters, and once again, one is reminded of The Lord of the Rings. These violent encounters see eyeballs plucked out, hearts ripped from living bodies, every kind of disgusting affront and injury to the human body that you can imagine in your most terrifying dreams. And these episodes happen over and over and over again in the 620 pages of this book. Truly, one's eyes glaze over after a while and the reader wonders, "Are there no editors left?"

Almost halfway through the book, as I began to despair of ever being able to finish it, I came across this sentence:
The only way forward is through.
Hmm. That looks familiar, I thought. I looked back at my review of James' previous book and, sure enough, there it was! The exact same sentence had encouraged me to persevere in reading that book. I had to smile. Is this some kind of mantra that James employs to encourage faint-hearted readers of his books? He doesn't really seem to have much regard for his readers, so I rather doubt it. Nevertheless, the sentence worked its magic and I did persevere and finish the book.

It is a work of enormous imagination and creativity. It reads a lot like a comic book, and maybe that is intentional. Maybe that is the audience for whom it is mainly written and intended. The characters themselves - the demons, necromancers, shape-shifters, vampires, zombies, and other mythical creatures - are comic book-like, mostly one-dimensional. There is little deep delving into the personality or motivation of characters. And that's all fine for what it is: Fantasy.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars 


  1. Well, you got through it. I intend to do so as well but your review sums up why I have been putting it off. Last evening I tried to watch a movie called Daughters of the Dust. It was soooo foreign to me that I could not make sense of it, in fact I fell asleep. I might try it again. Like Marlon James's books, I intuit there is something there I feel I need to grasp. The elements in BLRW are so outside what I usually read. Thank you for making it through and living to tell the tale!

    1. It is, to state the obvious, a unique book. As I indicated, the work I could most easily relate it to is The Lord of the Rings, a more disgustingly violent and sexualized Lord of the Rings. In the end, I just felt that he wasn't really writing for me and probably would have jerked the book out of my hands and thrown it across the room if he's caught me reading it! I don't know that I will ever attempt the second and third part of his trilogy if and when they come out.


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