I was excited when Marlon James announced that he was writing a fantasy book. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew that whatever it was it would be great.
I bought a copy of Black Leopard, Red Wolf as soon as it was published. James was on tour and came to my area, so I got a copy at a book signing event, where James spoke about the research he did for the book. I was impressed. I knew that I would like it and assumed that it would become my next favorite fantasy series.
However, if not for a buddy-read hosted by Why Read on Instagram, this book would probably still be sitting on my bookshelves unread. (I’m horrible at reading the books I buy.) The buddy-read got me to start the book and to continue with it when I was tempted to DNF it. By the end, I was impressed by the story and liked it but unsure if I will continue with the series.
Dark Star trilogy, book 1
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. (Goodreads)
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a fantasy story unlike any other I’ve read thus far. The first 100 pages were difficult to read. Many times I was tempted to give up on the story here because the narration felt disjointed, which often threw me out the story’s spell, and the language crass with much mention of violent acts. The combination of all these made an unappealing reading experience that made me wonder if it would be torture to read the entire book. Thankfully, it wasn’t. After the first 100 pages (actually, the first 95 pages), the story became easier to read as I got used to the protagonist, Tracker, and gradually took a liking to him and his smart mouth (he’s so feisty).
Oftentimes, the reviews I’ve seen of this book fail to mention that Tracker, the protagonist, is in jail recounting the events and decisions that led to his current situation — being accused of the death of a boy he was hired to find. That’s why the story begins with
“The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.”
The story is about what led to the child’s death and how Tracker got involved. Tracker is a mercenary who prefers to work alone. He’s good at the job because he has a strong sense of smell, so strong that he can smell out just about anything. He was hired along with other mercenaries to use his sense of smell to find the boy.
Despite my strong interest in the story (because I like the author and because the story is inspired by African myths), the first 100 pages often tempted me to DNF the book. It was hard to determine the timeline in those pages or what was happening when because as soon as the story begins, Tracker starts to tell another story that doesn’t seem to be exactly the one he’s supposed to tell us about (who’s the boy and how he died). It felt confusing until I got used to the narrative structure and the plot became easier to follow. That happened after 100 pages in.
The story kept me guessing, which made the buddy-read fun because it was a bit of a mystery to find out the identity of the boy, why and who wants him found, and why he is so hard to find. These questions kept me reading, but also the relationships Tracker develops and the crazy adventures he goes on while carrying out this quest.
For the most part, the plot flows smoothly, but there are some small gaps that I assume will be filled in the books that follow this one. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the first novel in the Dark Star trilogy. The second book will tell the same story from a different POV, so I bet my plot questions from this one will be explained there.
African folklore influence
James drew from a variety of African folklores to write this book and although I’m not familiar with African folklore well enough to identify the bits included, I could sense the influence. The monsters Tracker and his companions encounter are inspired by African tales, and they are all quite terrifying. The one that disturbed me the most was the Bad Ibeji, which is basically a parasite that’s created when there are twins in the womb but one latches onto the other… something like that; I forgot the full details, but Tracker’s experience with it was very disturbing. There is also the Ipundulu, also called lightning bird, which is vampiric. It’s not terrifying but has that subtle creepiness about it like vampires do.
Other aspects of the story that really stood out to me are areas where it differs from fantasy that are influenced by Western culture. For example, noon is the time to fear (“noon of the dead”) rather than midnight because these monsters do not wait for nightfall to come get you. Also, the color white is associated with evil rather than black, which is a change I found very interesting.
As I read, I kept wondering what parts are from James’s research into African myths and what parts are from his imagination. It made me want to do my own research into African myths and folklore. I was most impressed by the Darklands and how dreamy it seems and terrifying too.
“This was a mirror to a dream, a place where I was the dream.”
If there’s one place I liked in the book and wanted to read more about, it’s the Darklands and the crazy monkey in it. I kept wondering what other crazy shit could happen there.
I didn’t expect to like or sympathize with Tracker by the end of the book, but that’s exactly what happened. He grew on me once I got into the groove of the story and realized he’s a smart-ass. It made some of the dialogue funny. He’s a bad-ass, considering his other ability that comes in handy in a fight, and that appealed to me too. It also helped to know that he has a heart and cares for others although, considering what happens toward the end of the story, I wonder if that’s still true or if Tracker has somehow become as monstrous as the creatures he once hunted.
Another character I liked was Sadogo, a.k.a. “Ogo,” who is almost as tall and great as, but is not, a giant. I felt so sorry for him and the guilt he carried, but it was funny how he’d start talking and would not stop; just keep talking through the night about all his kills.
The other characters were interesting but not appealing, like Sogolon, the moon witch, who I’d like to know more about. I wonder how old, exactly, she is.
I considered James one of my favorite writers after reading his Book of Night Women. It was the only book of his I’d read prior to Black Leopard, Red Wolf. I love his writing style in both books. I love how descriptive it is.
However, there are aspects of Black Leopard, Red Wolf I didn’t like, namely how the violent acts are presented early on. I’m not squeamish and can read stories that has violence in them. In some ways, the violence in Black Leopard, Red Wolf is not to the extreme seen in some grimdark fantasy, but the frequency threw me off. Early in the book, we seem to get violent acts back to back and a lot of it involved rape. It was very off-putting and one of many reasons that tempted me to DNF the book. I got the impression that they were included merely to shock the reader than to add anything to the story. That coupled with the extreme vulgarity in the dialogue, not to mention the harshness toward women that bordered on misogyny, made the story less appealing. So whenever I took a break from reading, I wasn’t eager to pick it back up. Really, if not for the buddy-read, I probably would have given up. Usually this stuff doesn’t affect me this much, but they appear so often in the story that it turned me off.
Slight spoiler: Nevertheless, the story grew on me despite my complaints above. One of my favorite aspects of it are the themes it explores, namely what makes a person a monster/evil and how does a person become that way. Had the boy Tracker was searching for always been evil or did he become that way because of the company he was with? Should we feel sorry him? Could he have been saved? Was he becoming a monster? I wonder this last question because sometimes Tracker would look directly at the boy but lose the boy’s scent. I wondered if it’s because the boy was undergoing some sort of metamorphosis. If the essence of a person changes, does their scent change as well? I liked that the story left me with these questions.
The story that I got from Black Leopard, Red Wolf wasn’t at all what I expected. By the end, I liked it and was glad that I read it but did not feel enthused to continue with the series, especially since it’s the same story but from different perspectives and especially if the other books include as much violence and vulgarity as frequently as they appear in this story.
I’m not fully decided on this though. It’s highly possible that when the next book drops I’ll get excited because it’s by Marlon James and will buy it and read it, especially if the cover looks good. I just won’t get it in hardcover.
A surprising aspect of this book that I thought was fun were the many Lord of the Rings references in it. Those were fun to notice and added a bit of excitement to my reading experience. The ones that readily come to mind is when someone yelled “Run you fools!” at some point and when someone called the company of men who are searching for the boy “Bunshi and her fellowship of men.”
Overall: ★★★☆☆ ½
It’s a tough one to get into. You will really need to push through the first 100 pages before the story starts to get good, but I think it’s one worth trying.
When the next book is out, I’ll read a couple pages before deciding whether or not I’ll continue with the series, but right now I’m in no mood to read the same story or experience all that violence and stuff.