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Black Leopard, Red Wolf

Black Leopard, Red Wolf

I cannot remember the last time I read a book this inventive, unique, or mind-blowing. And I promise I’m not being hyperbolic: Black Leopard, Red Wolf is that good. The hype around Marlon James’s foray into the world of fantasy is real. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the first in a planned trilogy that’s being called the “African Game of Thrones.” But to compare it to Game of Thrones is to do it a disservice, in my opinion. It’s so much more than just the African ___. It’s its own thing. And oh my god is it a STORY.

In a land unlike our own, there’s a boy named Tracker. That’s not his real name, of course, but the name he’s taken, as he has a nose that can track down anyone (as long as they’re alive). He’s from a river tribe, called the Ku, but soon leaves his family in the company of a shape-shifter man-leopard called simply ‘The Leopard.’ There’s a lot of plot, names, and places right off the bat – but stick with it, cause you’ll get sucked into this world. The majority of the story is about the Tracker’s search for a boy who went missing three years ago — alongside a giant who is not a giant, a witch, a skilled swordsman from the East, and, of course, the Leopard (the titular ‘black leopard’), among others.

The book begins with a map, and a cast of characters, but they’re not for you to memorize, but for you to reference over the course of the story. Each section begins with its own map. This book is a fantasy lover’s dream; Tracker confronts vampires, hyenas, witches, evil queens, and more! The entire tale is framed as told in an interrogation — why Tracker is imprisoned, and by whom, is not clear until the very end.

Tracker’s sexuality — he’s gay, even if it’s never explicitly stated, he sleeps with men, and loves men — is a beautiful part of the story. The language is so beautiful; here’s a description (from the start of the book, so no spoilers, I promise) of Tracker seeing the Leopard in a place called Kulikulo Inn in a city named Malakal after a long time has passed:

He laughed. The years had changed him, even if he looked the same. His jaw was still strong,, his eyes, light pools where you saw yourself. Whiskers and wild hair that made him look more lion than panther. I wondered if he was still as quick. For long I wondered if he aged as a Leopard or as a man. Malakal was a place of civil butchery, and not a city for werefolk. But Kulikulo Inn never judged men by their form or their dress, even if they wore nothing but dust or red ochre spread with ow fat, as long as their coin was strong and flowed like a river…

James wanted to write Black Leopard, Red Wolf to “to reclaim all the stuff I like—court intrigue, monsters, magic. I wanted black pageantry. I wanted just one novel where someone like me is in it, and I don’t have to look like I just walked out of H. P. Lovecraft, with a bone in my hair, and my lips are bigger than my eyes, and I’m saying some shit like ‘Oonga boonga boonga.’ Or else I’m some fucker named Gagool and I’m thwarting you as you get the diamonds.” 

In a profile you should read of James in The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino write, “‘Black Leopard’ delivers some genre-specific satisfactions: the fight scenes are choreographed with comic-book wit; a futuristic city, seemingly weightless, rises past clouds and toward the moon; giraffes the size of house cats flee a rhino-size warthog; a corrupt merchant who deals in ‘white science’ grows a wife and child out of body parts and branches. But it deliberately upends others… he’d written not just an African fantasy novel but an African fantasy novel that is literary and labyrinthine to an almost combative degree. It is a quest story that opens with an announcement that the quest has failed: ‘The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.’ Drawing on the tradition of Anansi stories, folktales that end with a disclaimer that nothing can be taken at face value, James suffuses the novel with doubt and misdirection.”

Anyway. If you are a fan of fantasy, adventure, or even literary fiction: read this book. ASAP. You won’t regret it.

Rating: ★★★★★

Get it here: https://amzn.to/2T5C2DM

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