Skip to main content
book review
Open this photo in gallery:
  • Title: Black Leopard, Red Wolf
  • Author: Marlon James
  • Genre: Historical Fiction/Epic Fantasy
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • Pages: 640

Early on in Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the central character Tracker gives the game away. The boy he was hired to find, the central conceit behind the hero’s epic journey across a nightmare landscape, is dead. All that’s left is the telling of the sprawling, multilayered stories that brought him to the dungeon in which he’s being interrogated. The tip of the hand, however, isn’t in the early admission that his quest has failed. It’s in Tracker’s murder and maiming of his cellmates – provoked, yes, but brutal nonetheless – that Black Leopard, Red Wolf sets up a buffet of carnage as told by an unreliable djeli.

Tracker, a multigendered outcast with a preternatural sense of smell and a protective enchantment against weapons of metal, develops a reputation for his fighting prowess and for “finding what would rather stay lost.” He’s accompanied by his friend and lover, Leopard, a rakish fellow with a taste for fresh meat, who can transform into his namesake at will. But the two are far from the only hunters after the missing boy; the death of a king and political turmoil have aligned powerful interests toward the child’s retrieval. They’re joined, often grudgingly, by other outcasts and savants, including a shape-shifting witch and a hulking ogre whose bloody history, which dwarfs Tracker’s own, has left his mind scarred with trauma.

For those familiar with Caribbean and African folklore, Tracker’s journey is evocative of the tales told at our grandparents’ feet. The vengeful spirits, blood curses and shape-shifting fiends who come to steal away babies in the night are staples of the genre that find themselves dashed into James’s bouillabaisse of storytelling. There are also frequent allusions to the Epic of Sundiata, the West African poem detailing the life of Sundiata Keita, who founded the empire of Mali. But there’s plenty of meat available for newcomers, especially fans of pop culture and film horror. At times, the snappy banter between the characters is as crisp as Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. At others, their smouldering antipathy for one another, as well as the hostile lands they travel, calls recent cult hits such as The Witch and Bone Tomahawk to mind.

While the story is certainly a feast, at times it does feel indulgent to the point of gluttony. The book is splashed front-to-back with gore, viscera, body horror and the semen of man and beast alike. It’s pointless and perhaps masochistic to develop an attachment to characters who aren’t central to Tracker’s journey; they’re routinely snuffed out in most gruesome fashion.

When the people aren’t busy brutalizing one another, the world itself seems to vomit up any number of demons and abominations as if for population control. Even in the absence of otherworldly fiends, Tracker doesn’t so much describe his surroundings as experience them as antagonists, his keen nose picking up on every bit of stench and rot underneath what would probably look like lush surroundings to the lay observer. The world of Black Leopard, Red Wolf comes across as less a backdrop than a dying host creature at the effect of its cruel inhabitants.

That said, James has done something with the fantasy genre, which was in sore need of correction. Of all the world’s cultures that have been misunderstood and misinterpreted through allegory by Western fantasy writers, West African and Caribbean rank the highest. With a few short lines and character exchanges in the book, James debunks modern notions of West African gender and sexual norms, and even explains the relationship between circumcision and the practice often described as female genital mutilation, in that both practices originated as a means to reveal and differentiate gender. “In the beginning we are all born of two,” Tracker’s uncle explains. “You are man and you are woman, just as girl is woman and she is man.” In two sentences, James also highlights the complicity of African nations in the transatlantic slave trade. That he is able to offer these correctives in a fantasy book is commendable, but to do so with such dramatic flourish is breathtaking.

When James announced his intention to write the book, he described the endeavour as an “African Game of Thrones" – setting off several profiles and pieces that made the same comparison. While the analogy may be true insofar as the political intrigue and the sheer body count, Black Leopard, Red Wolf defies comparison. This is sui generis, the type of loving and self-loathing fever dream of a story that our grandparents would never tell in mixed company. If there’s any comparison to be made, it’s this: Black Leopard, Red Wolf is one of the most compelling fantasy lores since Frodo Baggins set out from the Shire.

A Canadian that Marlon James recommends you check out – Nalo Hopkinson

In her 1998 debut novel – Brown Girl in the Ring – Hopkinson, The Globe and Mail said “presented a powerful tale about Toronto in the grip of future urban decay, set against fantastical images derived from Caribbean poetry, traditional song and folklore." The book went on to win the Locus Award for Best First Novel and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.

Interact with The Globe