• The Good: Epic world-building and mythological characters
  • The Bad: Brutally violent and vulgar
  • The Literary: Deliberate prose and disjointed structure that supports its themes of the fluidity of truth

Tracker the mercenary is jailed in a cell, where he recounts his journey to find a boy missing for three years. He joins forces with Leopard, a shapeshifter, and a hodge-podge of unusual characters. But the narrative is more than the search for the lost child, as Tracker is constantly on the move, journeying, changing, and discovering in a life story with more than one thread.

I’ve never read anything quite like this. On the surface, it’s a quest to save a boy and solve the mystery surrounding his importance in a rich fantasy world based on African history and mythology. As Tracker searches the lands of a pre-colonial Africa, he encounters a dizzying array of fantastical creatures, including night demons, bush fairies, lightening zombies, antiwitches, dust assassins, vampires, ghosts, lesser gods,  lots of shapeshifters, and so many more. I love the idea of the Darklands, a land where time and distance don’t exist, and the Ten and Nine Doors, magical doorways that allow teleportation throughout the North Kingdom.

There’s a lot to appreciate about this book. It’s dense and non-linear, and doesn’t allow for lazy reading. With a wealth of world-building elements, the scope is epic. The prose is deliberate and beautiful, organized in a way that favors verbs and doesn’t reveal a subject until later.

At the end of 2019, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a National Book Award Finalist for Fiction and a Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fantasy. It’s been described as an ambitious, involving read, but I’d call it challenging.

First, the novel explores the nature of truth, but takes it so far that nothing in the story acts as a anchor. It’s deliberately opaque and confusing. Tracker describes himself as “a man who lives on the edge”, and is a truly elusive, unreliable narrator. His story jumps around in time. The characters themselves shift into animals, change colors and genders. The mystery abounds with rumors and charades and deceit. Vivid scenes turn out to be dreams. “Lie was truth and truth was a shifting, slithering thing”.

Second, whereas the plot is surreal, the violence is anything but. I generally like over-the-top violence when it’s cathartic, but this is real and uncomfortable and unrelenting. Children and women and animals are abused and raped countless times in matter-of-fact detail. Characters are stabbed, garroted, mutilated, and murdered with abandon. Life is cheap and women are commodities. Lewd details that might be intended to be humorous, combined with all the rape, get old fast. Tracker insults an old men who smells of ass cracks, is woken up when hyena shapeshifters piss on his face, and meets an Anansi who jizzes his web. Tracker’s personal family history of abuse and incest is the only strand that holds the plot together.

Lies are truth; stories don’t need structure or resolution; the gods are dead, but there’s still more to tell. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the first in a trilogy, and Marlon James has already revealed that each volume will present the same events to the reader through a different point of view.  He’ll deliberately muddy the waters of truth even further with different versions of the same story. It’s horror and tragedy under a thin wrapping of fantasy that I won’t pursue into the next installments.

If you are looking for black fantasy story to lose yourself in, read Octavia Butler or N.K. Jeminsin. As an exploration of modern myth that rises out of violent African folklore in challenging literary prose, this one might be worth reading, if you can take the brutality.