Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: The Maximalist Thrills of ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’

The mythical Africa of Marlon James' bloody new surrealist fantasy epic, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, terrifies as much as it bewitches.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf
Marlon James
Feb 2019

Unless they’re killing or trying to avoid being killed, nobody in the otherworldy Africa of Black Leopard, Red Wolf knows how to stop talking. Part of this is because this fantasy is being told to us by a garrulous wordsmith, a trickster and fixer known as Tracker. He’s spinning a tale, certainly tall but shot through with memory pangs and bone ache, to an unspecified “inquisitor” and seems to have plenty of time on his hands:

This cell is larger than the one before. I smell the dried blood of executed men; I hear their ghosts still screaming. Your bread carries weevils, and your water carries the piss of ten and two guards and the goat they fuck for sport. Shall I give you a story?

Why not a dozen or more? What follows is a tangled knot of yarns that doesn’t know when to stop. Tracker has a lot of material, as though James had opened up a spigot that he simply does not want to turn off. The story is just a thread, and Tracker takes his time finding it. He’s a mercenary, whose great skill is a nose that never loses or forgets a scent once acquired. Because of that skill, he and a motley band of hirelings are assigned to track down a kidnapped boy whose secret may hold the key to a kingdom and whose trail is littered with death.

Before the book gets even close to that, however, there are more stories. Even the narrator can’t get enough. When a man asks him, “Did you hear of the war of women?” Tracker responds instantly, “No. Tell me.” There is always another tale, of blood, vengeance, curses, magic, fate, maybe an enemy for Tracker to confront with his two hatchets, deftly flung knives, and a witch’s protective spell. As in his last novel, the alternately ribald and gloomy A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead, 2015), James takes his time getting to the central storyline, wrapping the plot in atmosphere, legend, hyperbole, and good old-fashioned bullshitting. Black Leopard, Red Wolf has that same hesitation about getting to the crux of things, though this time it’s even more pronounced. For in A Brief History of Seven Killings, James was guiding us through the arcane mythologies of a crime-plagued and spirit world-haunted Jamaica. This time, he has all of Africa filled with warring kingdoms, shape-shifters, witches, trolls, tree cities, and blood-sucking demons to get through.

After all, that is what one would expect from the starting volume of a trilogy long marketed as the “African Game of Thrones.” It’s not hard to see the connection. Like George R. R. Martin, James is a modern-day maximalist who heaps incident upon incident until his dramatic scaffolding is groaning under the weight. Both share an unflinching appreciation of Hobbesian humanity, where the weak are ground under the wheel of power and avarice and cruelty will always win, and an awareness that a fantasy world need not be without lust. They paint great, long canvases and promise more, more, more.

But that might be where the connections end. For all those broad-painting tendencies, Martin keeps cutting to the crux of things. His books are overflowing with story and incident; a plot outline would be almost as long as the books themselves. James’ style is more impressionistic and even borderline surreal. One of the first stories Tracker tells is being hired by a queen to find her long-passed King. “I had no problem with finding the dead,” he brags. “I took her down payment and left for where those dead by drowning lived.” A few pages later, he’s in the underworld fighting off roof-walking “night demons from an age before this age” called the Omoluzu who carry “blades of light, sharp like swords and smoking like burning coal.” Just another job.

For all his world-tripping derring-do, Tracker’s story is more character-based than expected. Part of the beauty of James’ telling—and honestly part of the reason it is hard to see this series taking on any kind of blockbuster status—is the care with which he circles around to his point. We have a lot to hear first from Tracker about his youth, particularly that first love with Kava his “moonlight boy” and the deep and cantankerous friendship with Leopard the feline shape-shifter and wily mentor. As any good hero with a pitch-black malicious streak and nightmares to run from, he might see the world in cynical hues but its sins extract a price, like Leopard’s words “that slip off him like water does oil but sticks to me like a stain.” The horrors he sees and fights, mythological and man-made, are not just phantasms.

There’s background scenery painted in rough and rich colors as well to savor. The backdrop to Tracker’s skirmish-laden ronin wanderings are replete with fuzzily outlined but vividly drawn world building, city maps, grandiloquent description, surreal trippings through ghost worlds, encounters with orc-light beasts and a gentle-natured giant sobbing over those he has killed, and an Afrocentric view of other lands ranging from the sly (a Civil War nod in a conflict called the “War of Northern Belligerence” or a reference to “kingdoms where people’s skin was paler than sand, and every seven days they ate their own god”) to the knife’s edge (cutting back at an arrogant mercenary from a place that seems like Arabia, Tracker says, “You think we run with lions and shit with zebra?”).

Tracker starts in pained acceptance of his fate, indulges in some sly boasting, and scrabbles through skin-of-teeth adventuring before arriving at a chain of dimension-hurdling climaxes that ripple across the page like the payload of a high-altitude bombing run thundering through a dark wood.

It’s an exhausting start to a series, with much to unpack and many dark paths to get lost on. As Tracker says, “The world is strange and people keep making it stranger.” There are supposedly two more books to come. Here’s hoping James keeps strange-ing this world.

RATING 8 / 10