Saturday 23 February 2019


Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James   {Reviewed by STELLA}
What to make of Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf? With comparisons to Tolkien’s Middle Earth, George R.R.Martin’s Game of Thrones (even James has jokingly dubbed the trilogy the 'African Game of Thrones') and accolades from Neil Gaiman it’s daunting before you even open the cover. Marlon James’ Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings blew your mind with its slang, its violence, its trippy dialogue and complex political machinations. It was an incredible piece of work that confronted readers, leaving some bewildered and others startled. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is far from this Jamaican world: it is the African epic fantasy that has not previously been written. Marlon James gives us a complex tempest of a story. At its centre is Tracker (a hunter), hired for his brilliant nose, able to track - one would say compelled to track - by his incredible sense of smell. Tracker is a loner, devoid of family (he has forsaken family, in fact even killed some of his kin - those who have wronged him), suspicious of people’s motives, yet drawn to danger and curious about others, especially those who dwell on the fringes of society. Tracker is also our narrator. We meet him imprisoned, confessing his crimes or beguiling his Inquisitor with stories. For this is a novel of stories and intrigue - stories that beget tales that in turn tell us more stories. At the heart of this tempest is a quest to find a child, and this quest pushes Tracker into the company of a group of mercenaries who are employed for this task. Twisting and turning through the world of Tracker - a world with his love/hate relationship to Leopard (a being who moves from leopard to beast with a barely a breath) - this is the story his jealousy of Leopard’s young bow man, of witches and anti-witches, of mingi children cast out, hunted and protected, of creatures that are both male and female, both human and mythic, of magical forests and bewitched lands, of ancient lands and power-hungry overlords and slavers, of cruelty and deceit, loyalty and betrayal. In a small part of this epic, the hyena women capture Tracker. They heckle him, desire him and piss on him with their long cocks, wish to devour him, kill him and free him. Torture and taunting is their real pleasure even as they argue among themselves - yet are they even real? (his missing eye is all that reveals to him that they probably are). And the tales keep coming at the reader. Complex, convoluted and endlessly fascinating, this work is oddly compelling and will have you turning the pages despite its violence, revulsion and cruelty. For alongside these elements are the strange machinations of the human heart, the desire to right wrongs, to absolve guilt with sacrifice or endangerment, to desire others, to be sensual, to overturn corruption and to be free from power structures enforced by others. Add to this some smart-arse characters, spiky female characters (mostly witches or other agents of spells and magic) and sparking dialogue that hums with tension and humour, and you will admire the first book in this trilogy - a trilogy that is laced with African mythology, ancient tales and a hallucinatory natural world which will have you spinning as well as intrigued.  

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