With shapeshifting humans, moon witches, fetish priests, devils and demons, gods and demigods, there is a stunning amount to grasp and unpack in Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Booker Prize-winning Jamaican author Marlon James.
The novel feels like an allegorical mash-up of Hans Christian Anderson stories with Alice Through The Looking Glass – there are mystical doorways, slavers and necromancers, and monsters that spring from ceilings and vanish into smoke when they hit the floor.
All the elements have a familiarity about them if you’ve read enough fairytales and fantasy fiction, or if you’ve heard the tall tales from generations past. And yet the 48-year-old author’s storytelling cunningly makes these tropes and characters feel fresh and new.
This book is the first part of a planned Dark Star trilogy. We know that the series will take a cue from Japanese filmmaking legend Akira Kurosawa’s acclaimed movie Rashomon and retell the same story from different perspectives in the two sequels.
Book #1, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, begins as a first-person narrative, as our loquacious hero emerges out of an ancient Africa that exists only in imagination. He doesn’t remember having a name, so “Tracker” is the moniker with which he identifies. Tracker has been captured and he is recounting his life story to the inquisitors interrogating him in his prison cell.
The opening chapter reads almost like a High Chant, something a chorus of Greeks in a long-forgotten play might relay. As Tracker recalls his teenage years, there is a lot of talk about sex, sexuality, rites of passage and more sex – a fairly accurate depiction of a pubescent boy, really. A lot of detail has gone into the sexual relations – who’s having it, when, how, and who’s not – and Tracker has all the information. Consider this a heads-up for anyone who’s prudish about carnal depictions.
James’ prose is dense, but in the most wonderful way. It’s a delicious ache to know we’re going to read about these events again from someone else’s point of view in the coming years. Because James makes it clear that his characters lie, and we have only Tracker’s word for now.
Meanwhile, fight scenes read like well-choreographed action sequences in a film as James vividly captures the cracking of skulls, the eruption of blood, and the horror at facing witches and demons the likes of which thrive in our nightmares.
Legends, myths and practices from across Africa’s vast history, landscape and diverse peoples are woven into this rich story. Pulling from Ashanti folklore, James’ depiction of Asanbosam and Sasabonsam, monstrous vampire brothers that feed on humans, are particularly terrifying.
Ostensibly, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a quest book: Tracker and his friend Leopard are hired to find a boy who would be king. As we get further into the quest, meeting new companions just as old ones get left behind, the mystery deepens around the lad they’ve been sent to find.
Like a wolf, Tracker is gifted with a “nose”, the ability to smell a scent and follow it to the ends of the world. The smell changes if the quarry dies, but once he has picked up a scent, he can track it anywhere. In one story, he even goes beyond this earth and down into the underworld following his target.
Meanwhile, Leopard is a shapechanger with the power to transform himself into his namesake. The two men share a goal, a companionship and a deeper love – and anyone who has truly lost their very first love will know the pain that Tracker refuses to admit in his storytelling.
Tracker recounts his years to his captors. In speaking to them, he tells us about the death of his father and how this set his life on the course that ultimately gets him captured and interrogated. How the fame of his tracking ability spread far and wide, such that a queen whose son was kidnapped sends moon witch Sogolon and various retainers to find and hire Tracker to locate and rescue her boy.
Ulterior motives abound, and as Tracker tells it, Sogolon feeds him information in dribs and drabs as they search for the missing prince. According to Tracker, Sogolon kept potentially vital information to herself, perhaps because she felt Tracker may not have done as requested should he have known the entire truth.
This is not a novel to consume in one feverish sitting. It’s a chronicle that wants you to take your time, linger and sweat over its words and meaning, and challenges you to piece together the path you’re being taken on before the protagonist can reveal the outcome.