Thursday, April 25, 2019

Review: Black Leopard, Red Wolf

Black Leopard, Red Wolf
From Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James:
Open quote 

The child is dead. There is nothing left to know. I hear there is a queen in the south who kills the man who brings her bad news. So when I give word of the boy’s death, do I write my own death with it? Truth eats lies just as the crocodile eats the moon, and yet my witness is the same today as it will be tomorrow. No, I did not kill him."

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is an epic African fantasy. It's been described as an African "Game of Thrones." Don't believe it.

Grade: C+

Full disclosure: I've never seen "Game of Thrones". But I have read and seen all "Lord of the Rings" books/movies. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is not those. It's an entirely adult fantasy, with more gore and blood and heads rolling than even a war between orcs and dwarves can prepare you for. And Black Leopard, Red Wolf is full of vulgar language and sex scenes — not romantic love scenes, but more like Spartan sex as relief after gory fight scenes.

If you're still with me, let's quickly cover the plot. The main character, called Tracker, has a superhuman sense of smell and is enlisted by a queen to find her missing son and heir to the throne. The whole novel is Tracker's quest to do that. That excerpt above isn't a spoiler because it's literally the first paragraph of the novel. But if Marlon James has Tracker tell us in the first sentence that "the child is dead" then what's the point of the novel? I can't answer that. Not because it would reveal spoilers. Because I really don't know.

The story is framed as an interview between a captive Tracker and an unnamed inquisitor. Besides Tracker, there is a shape-shifting leopard, various witches, good and bad, vampires, a giant (who is not a giant), a lightning bird that drains people's blood, magic doors and dark lands where people lose track of time and place for weeks on end. I assume that much of this is based on real African folklore. If so, then that makes the novel educational for me. If not, then I have to wonder if Marlon James wrote this novel on an acid trip.

That excerpt that begins the novel also contains the main subject explored by the novel. What is truth? Who is lying? Who can one trust? Is the boy even dead? It's a massive effort. It's a best seller. I bought it mainly because I was impressed by Marlon James' previous work, "A Brief History of Seven Killings". That and this were lavishly praised by critics, but my guess is that most people who start either novel fail to finish it. Such is the sad fate of great works of literature. I count "Black Leopard, Red Wolf" among them.

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