I couldn’t find this book in the fantasy section of my book store, because Jamaican-born Marlon James had previously won the Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014). This branded him Literary, and his output too. Can’t be seen in that smelly Fantasy ghetto, even though Black leopard, Red Wolf (2019) is full on fantasy, featuring giants, underworlds, mermaids, witches, shapeshifters, demons, everything.
When it came out, it was met with… shall we say mixed reviews. There were a few reasons for this:
- It is not very accessible for general audience. It has non-linear storytelling and an unclear internal chronology. And a lying narrator who frequently comes up with different endings to his own stories. Black Leopard, Gene Wolfe am I right.
- The stories are heavily informed by African mythologies, set in some African Iron Age. There are many smaller stories-within-stories. African style narration goes all the way down to the level of the prose, where James uses repetition and dialect that evokes oral storytelling.
- It is an orgy of sex and violence. Full of blood, rape and murder. No seriously. Incest, bestiality, pederasty and more. The book is also full of gay sex and its characters are misogynistic and misandristic in equal measure, angering people from every political side (likely on purpose). None of the characters are likeable. I could have chosen something else for my Christmas holidays.
My thoughts? The second half has amazing pay-offs, imaginative and horrific scenes, but you have to wade through a swamp to get there. The first ~40% is really hard going. For the longest time there is no real plot progression in sight and the misanthropy and grimdarkery is frontloaded in the book. But when the story kicks into gear – man – it’s great.
The story is narrated by Tracker, a man with the eye of a wolf (on loan) and a superhuman sense of smell. Tracker has bad blood. People hire him to find those who do not want to be found. The way he talks about his journeys is like a sensory overload, full of jungle sounds and smells of piss, sweat, blood, faeces. He’s tracking a lost child with a band of other hunters, but the book isn’t plot heavy; it’s really about his life story – his youth, his alienation from society, his self-hate, his distrust in everyone and his career as supernatural hunter.
Say what you want about James, but the man can write. His prose is dense, poetic and mesmerising, and James is under full control of his every word. He writes great one-liners. I needed my full attention to read this because James plays around with words and little riddles. You need patience, for little enigmatic moments are usually solved at the end of a chapter or a conversation. You also need to get into the rhythm of the dialects James uses and it is a bit of work.
The stories-within-stories are gross, violent and sexual, but this is (often) connected to a search for Who am I and What is my purpose, and How does my past shape me. Marlon James explains in a lecture that in a modern tale, a man might kill his brother and this is taken literally, but in a Greek myth, a man might kill his brother and then eat him. That jars us into thinking about it. This goes beyond the literal. James seeks that boundary of the grotesque again and again, but he is vague about any underlying purpose.
(James gave a bunch of interviews about his choice as a mainstream author to write a fantasy novel. He talks about Greek myths and about The Lord of the Rings as a means for Tolkien to process the horror of the First World War through myths, but I think James is trying to justify his choice with some deep sounding arguments to the mainstream public, to sell it as some lofty intellectual project. Likening his book to an “African Game of Thrones” or “African Lord of the Rings” kind of backfired in the fantasy community. Now, it might all be a digestion of homophobic violence in Jamaica and a struggle for self-acceptance, through fantasy imagery, but I think that James deep down just wants to geek out and put African myths in the spotlight. That might be the deepest underlying purpose.)
Back to the content. The constant focus on sexual violence really started to distract from the story, and I say this as someone who had no real issue with writers like R. Scott Bakker and George RR Martin. An example: there’s a scene where Tracker and a friendly giant are stuck inside a house while a demon tries to break in and eat them. It’s an action scene and the heroes are frantically trying to escape. In the middle of this, the giant starts a completely unrelated tale about how the King tried to breed his kind with kidnapped young girls but his member is so big that it kills them, and yes he lifts his skirt and James gives us a description of his giant penis. And all I could think of was: can we PLEASE go back to the action scene at hand? Can I PLEASE go a SINGLE chapter without sexual violence?
Thankfully, this calms down as the plot starts snowballing in the second half. Stakes keep raising, characters deepen out, motivations clear up. I mentioned that Tracker is full of hate and distrust, but his character is deeper than he seems. He’s not a YA character full of snark, but struggling with pain from everything that happened in his youth – the first chapters. All this comes back with renewed significance later in the book.
Really, I was about to throw in the towel at the half-way point when suddenly I found myself reading on like a cheetah. But even then, it’s a stop and go novel, and that might be a consequence of cooking up a whole fantasy novel out of a mixed bag of folk tales. It has the consistency of cottage cheese. Still, it does pick up.
With 600 pages, this is a full meal, heavy and spiced with psychedelics, full of memorable scenes and loaded with imagination. (And all that for half the pages of a Sanderson novel, who in comparison types so much and says so little.) But a lot depends on whether you can make peace with James’ style and choice of content.
Ultimately, yes, there are moments of greatness, but here’s the thing: most epic fantasy novels have moments of greatness. Is it worth pushing through all the difficult stuff? James’ dialects do give it a unique atmosphere of African oral storytelling, and his skill with words is magnificent. Even his overfocus on sex gives it some original material. If you are interested after all the pros and cons I listed, give it a try, but I recommend it with a thousand asterisks.