Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf is one of the most challenging books I’ve read in a long time. It’s also one of the most fascinating.
Let’s start with the structure. The story is mostly told in first-person by Tracker, a bounty hunter who has “a nose” (the ability to track by scent), “an eye” (a wolf eye in place of one of his human eyes), and “a mouth” (a habit of saying caustic things). But Tracker isn’t relating his tales directly to the reader. He’s being interrogated by an Inquisitor who doubts what he’s hearing. And given Tracker’s circumstances—captured and presumably awaiting execution—there’s good reason to think he might be stretching the truth. He even drops hints that he could be lying. Early on, while relating why he left his birthplace, he says, “There are two endings” to that anecdote, and then gives both potential resolutions. Later, he remarks that, “If the gods created everything, was truth not just another creation?” And in the book’s conclusion, he outright challenges the Inquisitor (and thus the reader) to tell him if what he recounted is convincing.
James also gives us an unorthodox mystery to unravel. The first part of Black Leopard, Red Wolf deals with Tracker’s childhood and his early relationship with Leopard, a shapeshifter who can take the form of a cat. But the second part tasks them with finding a boy and saving him, and the third part depicts Tracker hunting the same boy, this time to kill him. The ultimate outcome isn’t in doubt: the novel’s first line is, “The child is dead.” The Inquisitor also summarizes these events early on. What we don’t know is how and why these things came to pass, and the twists and turns are often hard to follow, not least because the people who want the boy rescued insist on obscuring his identity. “There have been three who hired me to find this child,” Tracker tells a comrade at one point. “Between them, they have told me five stories so far of who this child is.” “They wish that you save him,” his comrade guesses, “but do not wish that you know who you save.”
Tracker’s voice lost me on occasion too. His fight-scene descriptions are jumpy, the literary equivalent of a shaky cam. Much of the dialogue is clipped (in some cases, because characters aren’t speaking in their first languages; but generally, I think James just wanted to affect a certain style). And there’s a surreal quality I found hard to engage with.
But the worldbuilding—my god, the worldbuilding. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is an African fantasy set before Europeans intrude, and there’s very little that feels “Western” about the story. The monsters are distinct (roof-walkers who stalk you from the ceiling, lightning vampires whose thralls crave their master’s charged blood, men who mutated themselves into spiders, and many more). The societies function according to different rules. The magic works in intriguing ways.
Experiencing all this is what kept me going when the mystery tangled itself in knots or the characters became too many to keep track of. I also found Tracker to be a compelling protagonist, even when he’s doing his best to be unlikable. Over the course of his narrative, we see him harden, soften, and harden again. That part of the journey makes sense. Does the rest? I think I’d have to reread Black Leopard, Red Wolf and really study it to decide how reliable Tracker’s tales are. I might just wait for the sequels, though. Supposedly they’re going to examine the same story from different perspectives. I hope one of them is Leopard’s: he’s not in the first book quite enough to justify being a titular character. Either way, if the rest of the series reaches a similar level of genius—messy or not—I’m all in.
Content warning: I should note that Black Leopard, Red Wolf is decidedly NOT a children’s book. It contains graphic depictions of violence, sex, and rape. The scene where Tracker loses one of his human eyes is particularly brutal. This book isn’t for everyone. But I do think it’s worth reading.
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