Books

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

Riverhead

Feb 2019

Other

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.

8


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

Zadie Smith's 'Intimations' Essays Pandemic With Erudite Wit and Compassion

Zadie Smith's Intimations is an essay collection of gleaming, wry, and crisp prose that wears its erudition lightly but takes flight on both everyday and lofty matters.

Music

Phil Elverum Sings His Memoir on 'Microphones in 2020'

On his first studio album under the Microphones moniker since 2003, Phil Elverum shows he has been recording the same song since he was a teenager in the mid-1990s. Microphones in 2020 might be his apex as a songwriter.

Music

Washed Out's 'Purple Noon' Supplies Reassurance and Comfort

Washed Out's Purple Noon makes an argument against cynicism simply by existing and sounding as good as it does.

Music

'Eight Gates' Is Jason Molina's Stark, Haunting, Posthumous Artistic Statement

The ten songs on Eight Gates from the late Jason Molina are fascinating, despite – or perhaps because of – their raw, unfinished feel.

Film

Apocalypse '45 Uses Gloriously Restored Footage to Reveal the Ugliest Side of Our Nature

Erik Nelson's gorgeously restored Pacific War color footage in Apocalypse '45 makes a dramatic backdrop for his revealing interviews with veterans who survived the brutality of "a war without mercy".

Music

12 Brilliant Recent Jazz Albums That Shouldn't Be Missed

There is so much wonderful creative music these days that even an apartment-bound critic misses too much of it. Here is jazz from the last 18 months that shouldn't be missed.

Music

Blues Legend Bobby Rush Reinvigorates the Classic "Dust My Broom" (premiere)

Still going strong at 86, blues legend Bobby Rush presents "Dust My Broom" from an upcoming salute to Mississippi blues history, Rawer Than Raw, rendered in his inimitable style.

Music

Folk Rock's the Brevet Give a Glimmer of Hope With "Blue Coast" (premiere)

Dreamy bits of sunshine find their way through the clouds of dreams dashed and lives on the brink of despair on "Blue Coast" from soulful rockers the Brevet.

Music

Michael McArthur's "How to Fall in Love" Isn't a Roadmap (premiere)

In tune with classic 1970s folk, Michael McArthur weaves a spellbinding tale of personal growth and hope for the future with "How to Fall in Love".

Film

Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.

Music

The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.

Music

Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.

Music

Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.

Music

Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.

Film

The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.

Music

Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.

Music

Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.

Music

Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.