Black Leopard, Red Wolf is Marlon James’s latest book and is the first instalment of the planned The Dark Star trilogy. In Black Leopard, Red Wolf Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James dips into the folklore and myths of Africa to transfer the reader in an amazing, fantastical world that combines the mundane with the most amazing creatures and magic that can be found in African myths and legends. There is magic, there is plenty of gore and for the fantasy map lovers out there the book comes with a gorgeous map of James’s world that would make even the best fantasy writers jealous.
James’s new novel follows the life and adventures of the main protagonist who is simply called Tracker. Tracker, as the name suggests, is incredibly good at finding people, both living and dead, because he has ‘a nose’ for it. His nose has been hired for the tracking of a boy whose significance is step by step revealed throughout the story. Tracker embarks upon the quest in a company unlike any other. There is Leopard, a shape shifting man/leopard, there is Bunshi the witch and there is even a giant whose past haunts him. This fellowship soon falls apart as one of the main points of the book is how fickle love and trust are in life. The reader sees how quickly alliances shift whilst Tracker is trying to find the boy. Alongside his quest Tracker meets a number of monsters and creatures from African mythology which make the book incredibly interesting for the readers who love learning something new whilst reading. Marlon James has really mastered how to implement folklore and mythology whilst keeping humanity as real as we know it.
However, the amazing background is not always enough to make the book truly great and captivating. The main issue with Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the characters. There are a lot of characters throughout the book and they do not stand out so they become somewhat interchangeable and really hard to remember or relate to. The way they behave, their beliefs and views on life are so similar that if it wasn’t for the names, the reader could easily get confused as to who is who. Also, although the main plot line sounds like an adventure story and a quest to find a lost boy the majority of action is very repetitive and revolves around murder and rape to such an extent that even the gore scenes become tedious to read. It is obvious that the book is meant to reflect our human, 21st century world that indeed has a lot of ugliness in it and there is of course a lot of hope and understanding throughout the story. The homosexual relationships of Tracker and Leopard are seen as something normal and accepted by both humans and magical beings which shines a much needed positive light in the story giving the reader with a lot of food for thought regarding our world and relationships. Still, even this undergoing contemplation of human nature and life becomes obscured by the monotonous action that skips from gory flashbacks to the current quest that is just as involved in a circle of murder, rape and characters who don’t really give a damn.
Despite its flaws, James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a real celebration of African culture, mythology and folklore. The creatures and magic that the reader encounters throughout the narrative are indeed mind-blowing and incredible, making time spent reading worthwhile. The characters and the action do lack a bit to make James’s book a great read but here’s to hoping that the next two books from the trilogy will bring us more character development, better plot lines and even more of the amazing, fantastical world in which Tracker and his gang go on further adventures.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is available now, published by Hamish Hamilton.