Black Leopard, Red Wolf

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 05 Feb 2019

Member Reviews

I struggled to read this book and wished that I had liked it. As a fan of folklore, I was excited to read something drawn from African mythology, but ultimately I did not enjoy it. It felt too long, too violent. (That's saying something for someone who binge-reads Stephen King from time to time.)

I'm sure it will find an audience just fine, but it's not for me.
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Holy Sh*t, this was amazing!  Amazing world building, dynamic wordplay... omg this has everything you forgot you needed!  I enjoyed this so much, I went back and read the other books he has written, needless to say he’s got a new fan!  I can’t wait to see what he does with this series.
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This may be an unpopular opinion.

After reading glowing reviews of this book and listening to several passionate reviews with the author about his research and intentions, I was excited to read this book. It was quite a slog for me but I kept coming back to it to try to see what others were seeing (see Jeff VanderMeer's review in the LA Times.)

Around halfway, the parts did coalesce and I felt I could finally sink into the story, but it also grew in violence at this point. So I take issue with two major components - this reads like a mind-dump first draft and I found there to be way too much detail even for an epic fantasy. Less is more! Revision is your friend! Along the same vein, the dialogue was often redundant and slowed the pacing down (I really noticed this at the end when I needed it to wrap up already.)

Part of the praise for the novel is that it has gay characters and is based in mythologies and folklore of the African continent, which is wonderful and I would like to see more of this. Diversity and representation matter. But the content also includes horrifying rape scenes and child abuse that are made more awful because the children are made to survive through magic. Am I just the wrong audience for epic fantasy? It's possible. But I did not feel my time was justified for pushing through to the end.
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Absolutely phenomenal.  It's not my usual genre or even type of books, but I'm now a fan.  I've recommended this to my young adults and adults and look for it to become a new classic.   The story was intricate and entwined and every bit as exciting as I hoped it would be.  It's on a waiting list in my library and I can't wait to see what my readers think of it!
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This is the biggest broadest story that I've read in quite some time. Tracker, Leopard, Moshi, even lesser characters are multi-dimensional and complex. I may have to read it a second time just to explore these places that sprang from Marlon James' imagination.
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I have tried several times to find my way into the novel, but unfortunately, it didn't work at all for me. I just could not make sense of it. I am really disappointed (in myself) because I was so much looking forward to this novel. I do not think the author is to blame in any respect here, it is simply wasn't a kind of novel for me.
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Until recently, Jamaican born writer Marlon James was known best for wining the Man Booker prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, but his latest novel, the sprawling epic fantasy Black Leopard, Red Wolf, is going to very much take place of what the writer is most associated with—there is no doubt.

“I wanted to reclaim all the stuff I like—court intrigue, monsters, magic,” James told The New Yorker last month, “I wanted black pageantry.” And that’s exactly what he’s achieved with this story of Tracker, an angry young protagonist who is known for his nose, and uses this power (alongside his ability to not be harmed by anything ‘born of metal’), to find what no one else can. Tracker, similar to the protagonist of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, has a most powerful sense of smell—he can smell below the surface to detect emotion; he can smell into distance and even time, and so has developed quite a reputation as the man who can find anything or anyone at all, and one who is willing to go anywhere it takes to search.


Joining Tracker are a number of characters with equally strange abilities, including the titular Leopard, a shapeshifter with whom Tracker shares a complicated past (the constant tension between the two of them features a deep love and a hatred too) but then, it seems Tracker shares a complicated past with quite a few characters. The crew have been hired to find a boy who has been missing for some years, and no one is quite certain who he is or why he’s missing—was he kidnapped? By whom? No one knows, and if anyone does, they aren’t telling the characters or the reader. The boy has something to do with the King, his leadership and the kingdom, and Tracker’s frustration at not knowing everything is second only to the readers’.

“There have been three who hired me to find this child. A slaver, a river spirit, and a witch. Between them, they have told me five stories so far of who this child is.”

“Five lies to find him or save him?”

“Both. Neither.”

Other than for clear cut profit, why is (or was, since we are being told about a search that has ended) Tracker determined to find this child? It’s because this book itself, of course, is a quest fantasy, a hero’s journey. But it’s a complicated, restlessly twisting, spiralling story that begins by telling its readers/listeners that it is a futile quest since ‘the child is dead. There is nothing left to know’. And yet …apparently there is plenty to know, because Tracker is narrating this lengthy story to an ‘inquisitor…[a] fetish priest’ who has him captive. Is the story then really about finding this boy, or more so about the journey that leads to Tracker confirming the child’s death? Or is the story about Tracker finding himself? Classically, quest fantasies are essentially about the hero finding himself or his own shadow self; understanding who and why he is who and how he is. Which in Tracker’s case is sensitive, angry, lonely and a lot more lost than those he has spent years finding.

A lot of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is gloriously rich, beautiful writing: visceral and muscular. James flexes often, and it’s always easy to appreciate, by the eye on the page and by the ear if you read out loud. The rhythms of the writing are very resonant of oral storytelling, which of course is the point. The narrative is bursting with stories even within that of Tracker’s quest—each character has a backstory of their own, each place they travel through has a history that must be told, each kingdom it’s own politics. All of these smaller stories branch off from the main arc, so it can be overwhelming at times, as fun and clever as it is, to not feel strongly tethered to one plot. But perhaps that is the point—this is a quest fantasy, after all—you may not need everything you find each time you stray off the path, but it all does make the journey more interesting. The paths here wander through an alternate Africa, a mythological place of magic and monsters and Rashomon-style varied truths laying uncomfortably against each other at every point of action.

In fact each part of the Dark Star trilogy will be this same story told from a different character’s perspective, examining how individual points of view can change the story being told, how there is no absolute ‘true story’, only individual truths for each person in a shared context. Certain aspects of this idea for the trilogy are exciting—there are many moments in Tracker’s story that could do with an alternate perspective to settle some confusion or validate a readers’ theories, for example. The worry is, will readers remember everything in each book well enough to note where the fine details change when the perspective does? Even within Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the truth isn’t concrete and changes frequently, as Tracker himself points out, ‘truth [changes] between one man saying the same thing twice.’

There are a number of occasions in the narrative when what is ‘real’ can easily be conflated with what is a surreal vision or hallucination Tracker is experiencing. It’s hard to tell whom to trust, especially since Tracker himself trusts no one and nothing, and we’re inclined to believe he has reason to be this suspicious. Tracker is told by his uncle, ‘You will be one always on the line between the two. You will always walk two roads at the same time. You will always feel the strength of one and the pain of the other’, and though this is directed at his sexuality, it is true for a great deal of what he experiences. Tracker, for all his anger and bitterness, is constantly drawn to the weak, the outcast and the maligned and so when he tells us he is honest, and that he does not change truth to appease anyone even if he’s shot as the messenger, we are automatically empathetic towards him.

‘I hear there is a queen in a kingdom far south who kills the man who brings her bad news. So do you wish for a story where the child is less dead? Truth changes shape just as the crocodile eats away the moon, and yet my story is the same today as it was three days past, and will be tomorrow, so fuck the gods and your questions.’

Some of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is outright frightening. It’s bloody and gory and vicious. Its pulpy, cinematic and sensuous landscapes shift fluidly, bodies change; the borders between life and death, between chaos and order, between seen and unseen worlds are nebulous and constantly ebbing. Nothing is completely linear or binary in this book—not the plot, not the characters, not the mythologies the narratives leans on. Everything is in flux and that’s what makes it fun, what makes it interesting—and complex, that there are many, many ‘fantastic beasts [with] fantastic urges’. The fact that the narrative is this intense for over 600 pages is what gets overwhelming, along with the fact that James has zero intentions of telling his readers what the ‘truth’ really is. As Tracker is told, Black Leopard, Red Wolf can be ‘such a puzzle … the more you tell me, the less I know’.
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Overall, not my cup of tea, but I recognize skillful writing and storytelling when I see it. This will be a welcome addition to library collections and will appeal to adults who enjoy a blend of fantasy and mystery with a good dose of mythology. However, it is not for the faint-hearted.  I am left feeling that I need to read more mythology from the African continent.
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This was the first Marlon James book I have read, and it was quite a ride. Parts of the book were quite difficult to read and understand what was happening, while other sections flew by and painted vivid scenes. As an example, I devoured the first chapter, and as soon as the second chapter started I felt like I was reading a kaleidoscopic fever dream for the next fifty pages. It was mostly smooth sailing after that, however. 

Black Leopard, Red Wolf follows the story of Tracker, who has superhero-like smelling powers. Once he gets the scent of a person he can find them anywhere. This makes him an invaluable member of a team looking to find a boy. While that search is the main impetus for much of the story, the book is really about other themes such as truth, what binds people together (love, loyalty, friendship), and accepting people as they are. 

There is lots of gender and sexual fluidity, which isn’t something I have read in many fantasy books, and I found that and the African backdrop to be quite refreshing. Lots of fantasy books that are written for adults can also be read by teens, but this isn’t one. It’s very gruesome and graphic at times. Rape, torture, and violence of all kinds are frankly commonplace. I would recommend Black Leopard, Red Wolf to adults who enjoy both literary fiction, fantasy, and can handle the violent tones of this book. It certainly isn't for everyone, but it is sure to have huge fans.
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I love fantasy and was excited to try this book- it had all the makings of a classic fantasy epic.  A group of misfits, each with their own special skill, trying to work together to find a kidnapped child who seems to be important to warring groups of royals.  African history and mythology coming to life as our group crosses the land and fights demons, vampires, magic, and each other. 

It took me about one hundred pages to start getting into Black Leopard, Red Wolf.  The writing style took a lot of getting used to, not just because it is told as if the narrator is telling stories, but because he jumps around.  There's no chronological order, we don't really meet characters as much as they just appear, and things are rarely explained or described.  When Tracker finally gets to telling us the story of him getting paid to join up with a group searching for a child who was kidnapped three years ago, the pace picks up and the story gets (mostly) easier to follow.  We still don't really know who any of the characters are, or why they are doing anything.  We get a lot of stories to explain why things happen and who people are but it's also understood pretty much up front that at least half of what anyone says will be a lie.  The end result being I didn't have much of an emotional connection to any of the characters and liked them even less- including Tracker, who despite being our narrator isn't likable but instead is mostly an arrogant, misogynistic jerk even to the few characters who try to get along with him.

Pages of descriptions still left me with no image in my head of what I was supposed to be seeing during the traveling, many of the magical beings met along the way got no description because Tracker assumes we know what he's talking about.  But let it come to killing something/one, rape, torture, or any other horrible thing and don't worry- those episodes get described in such minute detail you can smell the blood and guts.  

There were times when I enjoyed the story-telling narrative, when it reminded me of The Odyssey as Homer describes travels and magics and wonders.  But more often the technical aspects of the book were distracting and what I ended up focusing on more than the story.  If it had been a more 'conventional' narrative, would I have liked the book better?  No, I don't think so. Basically it comes down the fact that this was a raw, gritty, dark fantasy and I am not a fan of dark fantasy.  I can handle violence is small doses but Red Wolf gives us huge overdoses.  Friends become enemies, enemies fight as allies, and it is jarring each time because we only get the story of 'why' afterwards.  Far before we get to the end we find ourselves asking what the point of all of it was.  Maybe that is the point, maybe the book is meant to be a philosophical questioning of who we are and what is truth and why do people do anything.  But when I end a book asking myself "This is how it ended? What was the point of this?" it's pretty certain I'm not going to read the rest of the series to find out out.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is 600 pages of raw violence, betrayal, rape, gang rape, torture, and killing surrounding a quest you're never sure the point of.  The technicalities of the writing probably mean some people will love it and others will hate it.  Those who enjoy dark fantasy may like the story, but readers hoping for something lighter, uplifting, or positive should probably steer clear of this one.   I rather wish I had.
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This engaging work of fantasy creates a whole new world to explore, written in the first person. Recommended for Game of Thrones and Marlon James fans alike.

The author has started this trilogy off right, with the character "Tracker" as the perfect narrator to introduce a world of violence and the supernatural to the reader.
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Marlon James is one of our best writers out there right now, and it's no shock that he can jump from one genre to another completely different genre with ease. His plotting and world building in BLACK LEOPARD, RED WOLF is astounding, and the complexities and details are finely worked and come together. Even though I am not a huge fan of high fantasy stories, I wanted to check out this series specifically because of James and how much I like his writing. While I still didn't quite connect to this story because of the genre, I think that fans of fantasy need to give this a look. James has possibly created the next great fantasy epic, and BLACK LEOPARD, RED WOLF is just the beginning.
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This is probably a great and stunning game-changer and I will recommend it widely. Its general hailing as the next "Game of Thrones" is accurate, but also I couldn't get past the main character's preoccupation with circumcision in the first 20 pages to decide to care further. Do you like long epic fantasies and are you interested in a new take on it? Great, try this.
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Black Leopard, Red Wolf is receiving high early praise, and not without reason. The novel reads as finely as poetry, with the reader 'hearing' the flow of the speaker in a traditional African dialect. James's world-building is superb, although the beginning is little shaky as it begins with a few short stories provided by our protagonist. This book is also very graphic, not recommended for everyone.
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This is an epic fantasy that is not for everyone. It took a bit to get into, but when you're in, get ready! It is beautifully written & the descriptions of the landscape are amazing. I'm looking forward to the rest of the trilogy!
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I had a really difficult time describing why I didn't love this book.  I wanted to, but just couldn't really ever get entirely into it.  I'd be there, and then I'd be bored again.  It's objectively great but subjectively it just wasn't my cup of tea.
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In another person's hand, this book could have been magical, but in mine, it's mystifying. I have a hard time following the flow of the story and the ample violence/gore at the beginning is not quite helping. That said, I believe that other people may have better experience reading this book. The plot itself is quite fascinating,
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I've had this arc sitting on my Kindle for awhile now, and I just can't quite get into it. The writing is good, and the setting seems potentially interesting, but I've tried to get through it a few times and it just isn't grabbing me. Part of this I think is that the tone seems to be relatively dark and brutal, and while I have nothing against that it's not what I'm looking for right now. I think that this is a book that will appeal to a lot of readers, and I may give it another try when my reading mood shifts again, but I'm putting it aside for now.
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Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a book that is difficult to describe. It blends African folklore and historical fiction into a bloody and heartbreaking tale that stays with you long after finishing. James has created a terrifying world with mythical monsters, heartless nobles, and cruelly ambitious magic users. A disparate group of characters is sent on a quest to find the boy who is destined to be king - stolen from his rightful throne by another's ambition. It sounds like a heroic epic fantasy, right? Spoiler alert - it's not. This story is what happens when the world is cruel, your adventurous heroes all have their own goals, and the rightful king is a child kidnapped and raised by monsters.

It was hard for me to decide what rating to give this book - it is brilliant and beautifully written, and full of violence and anger. This book is not for the faint of heart. It is difficult to read - just in terms of pure difficulty but also because of the sexual violence, violence against children, and the often cruel and bitter personality of the protagonist. It took me a while to get into it. However, I know a book has had an impact on me when the next book I start to read just seems so ridiculous and unimportant in the wake of what I've just finished that I can barely stand to read it. I cried for some of the characters - including the protagonist, Tracker, even though I often disliked him a great deal. 

To summarize - this book is important. It's brilliant. It's going to leave a mark. It's also sad, mean, and difficult. If you can handle the violence, read it. I'm glad I read it! I'm glad I'm done reading it. I want to go back in it and try to understand it more, live in it a little (not really, too scary! just metaphorically). It's just that kind of book.
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This is an epic tale beyond all expectations. When the mercenary Tracker is asked to join a ground searching for a missing boy, he knows something isn’t right about the assignment. He has never needed help before, and why are so many people interested in finding this seemingly unimportant boy? As Tracker ventures further along his path, he strumbles upon unexpected allies, sworn enemies, gods, monsters, and witches. An amazing story full of action, intrigue, friendship, love, and betrayal.
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