Publication: February 5, 2019
My Rating: 4/5
In the first novel in Marlon James’s Dark Star trilogy, myth, fantasy, and history come together to explore what happens when a mercenary is hired to find a missing child.
Tracker is known far and wide for his skills as a hunter: “He has a nose,” people say. Engaged to track down a mysterious boy who disappeared three years earlier, Tracker breaks his own rule of always working alone when he finds himself part of a group that comes together to search for the boy. The band is a hodgepodge, full of unusual characters with secrets of their own, including a shape-shifting man-animal known as Leopard.
Drawing from African history and mythology and his own rich imagination, Marlon James has written an adventure that’s also an ambitious, involving read. Defying categorization and full of unforgettable characters, Black Leopard, Red Wolf explores the fundamentals of truths, the limits of power, the excesses of ambition, and our need to understand them all.
There are few fantasy novels that can do what Marlon James accomplished with this much-anticipated first release of the even more anticipated Dark Star trilogy to come. It’s a story that felt as simultaneously ancient as it was ageless. Black Leopard Red Wolf took me to an otherworldly Africa where unexpected crevices of African mythology and history pressed and pushed and bullied me into uncomfortably intense prose. Following a band of mercenaries, anti-heroes, and shapeshifters, the story unfurls around a quest to reunite a mother and her son. There are royal feuds, conflicts between tribes, complicated character development, and love tangled and told through the narration of our main character Tracker, a member of the search team with an especially keen sense of smell.
This is not a lazy-mans read – it’s heavy, both physically and figuratively; a tomb of 620 pages lacking no reprieve from action. Black Leopard Red Wolf is an unforgiving onslaught of other. An initial shock of writing style and intentional grammatical lapses had me kicking and screaming in protest but all too inevitably, I got distracted by the uniqueness of each beast of lore, the promise of adventure and the addictive nature of reading something so unlike anything I’ve read before.
I faced a real struggle with this read. There were more occasions than not where I felt overwhelmed by the language and crassness of phrase. Perversion, violence, sexuality, dark metaphorical significance, burying the lead in the details and dry, dark wit are all shamelessly, gloriously styled and executed with writing that’s no short of brilliant. I played catch-up so often that I questioned if I’d missed something on the regular. But nope. That’s what Marlon James did here. He unabashedly drops you mid plot, mid twist and you’ll see – the build will come, sense will follow and you’ll be wowed but how tight and well crafted this story is. I was.
The mystery, adventure and fantasy of it all had me in deep. There’s everything from ghosts, demons, bloodsuckers, flesh-eaters, witches, a spider-man-hybrid that’s the farthest cry from our friendly neighborhood Spidey, shapeshifters and creatures that illicit real cringes. Oh and a water buffalo. And then there’s the world; it’s immersive and imaginative – dark forests with even darker ploys, doors chiseled of fire, kingdoms suspended from trees, and so much more. Pulled from African history and folklore, James keeps you craving more. Craving the original myth, craving geography, craving an education in a culture that’s deeper and richer than anything cinematically popularized. This book encouraged steady exploitation of Google, to say the least.
Black Leopard Red Wolf is NOT for everyone.
Many people will be offended. As recognizable as the author’s talent is to me, and as much as I perceive this book as a masterpiece, it won’t be something I readily recommend to all my friends and family. Triggers are NOT few and NOT far-between. There’s rape, violence, abuse, profanity that doesn’t try to hide its racist or sexist (sometimes both) themes, homosexuality and attacks on religion. This book is unapologetic. And that will, undoubtedly, rub some people the wrong way. And if you’re able to get through that, there’s Marlon James’ writing style itself to contend with.
But if you’re not shy of graphic depictions of gore and love and are interested in experiencing prose that’s so uniquely styled, then pick up this book. Read it for the thrill of the quest and the chase of the hunt. Read it for the incredibly distinctive and varied roster of characters then lend much to the addictive nature of the book. Read it for its imaginative fearlessness.
There’s an amazing story here – A true craftsmanship that I can’t wait to sink my teeth further into. I’m still reeling, still collecting the pieces of my shattered expectations and still trying to understand more of the complexities of this book. But what I do know is that I’ll be one of the first to pick up the next installation in the Dark Star Trilogy.