Say the word “fantasy” and most people think of Tolkien – or at least, a Tolkienesque world filled with elves, orcs, and dwarves, even if they are called by another name, living in a temperate climate that resembles the British Isles. Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf takes readers into the first volume of a fantasy trilogy set in an world built on African geography and mythology. The resulting product has some familiar terms, like “witch” or “vampire,” but it runs with them in a completely unexpected direction. The story follows Tracker, a skilled fighter with an unnaturally sharp nose and a wolf’s eyeball, as he hunts for a lost prince and fights monsters, mostly alongside his frenemy, the Leopard. The monsters come hard and strong, drawing from a wide variety of African mythologies.
While Tracker and the Leopard’s relationship can best be described as a frenemy, but it’s much more complicated than that. The Leopard, a fellow warrior who trained with Tracker in their youth, can actually shape shift into a black leopard. Over the course of nine years, Tracker and the Leopard become sexual partners, hunting partners, part of a team of bounty hunters, colleagues, and eventually soldiers on the opposite sides of a war. They grow jealous at each other’s lovers, but still trust each other in battle. The Leopard’s friendship reflects the striking difference in attitude that Tracker takes towards the men and women he encounters. Tracker basically asserts that anyone woman he dislikes is a witch. Tracker is hardcore sexist, no one pretends like it’s an excuse, and several characters call him out on it, but each kingdom that Tracker and the Leopard live in brutalizes people regularly. Slavery occurs everywhere, rearing its ugly head alongside infanticide and incest. Tracker and the Leopard first met trying to escape this violence in the home of a Sangoma, a witch who put on a spell on Tracker so that metal weapons cannot break his skin, where they live with children who had been abandoned by their mothers. A betrayal wipes out most of their little family, but Tracker occasionally visits the survivors as he continues on budding mercenary career. The occasionally stability that alliances such as the one with the Leopard offers the only real normalcy that Tracker ever knows, until he starts hunting monsters.
More like private eye or a Western gunfighter than a knight errant, Tracker puts his near-invulnerability and hunting skills to use by finding lost people for money. Usually, Tracker finds cheating spouses and kills the husbands if they are abusive. As he wanders, Tracker cannot help getting more and more mired in the gore he witnesses and commits. He regularly fights monsters: not only witches, but man eating creatures that somewhat resembles monkeys, insane near-giants, a kind of bird that sucks victims’ blood out and replaces it with lightning. At one point, a group of hyena-women removes his eye. The Leopard puts him in touch with a slaver, who pays him to find the nephew of a mad king bent on conquest. Tracker’s quest does put him in touch with, really the only good influence in Tracker’s life, a heroic swordsman named Mossi, but as he descends into deep jungle and thirsts on the open savannah, Tracker easily loses track of where his trade has honor or not. The line between physical monster and murderer becomes increasingly thin.
The story often reflects the elusive morality of Tracker’s actions. Slowly, it’s revealed that Tracker has been narrating the story to an interrogator in some enemy prison, so nothing can really be precise and at times, certainly not trusted. While the narration skillfully focuses on things that Tracker would notice, it’s easy to lose patience with Tracker, especially when he talks about his sex life. His questioning of gender roles becomes repetitive because usually Tracker asserts the dominance of men over women and descends into cynicism. He does notice when Mossi or the Leopard points how frustrating his casual sexism can be, but old habits die hard for Tracker. Tracker’s voice has a kind of rhythm to it as well, which usually carries the story gently along and around the numerous gaps that he intentionally leaves in his story, but his ability to reduce conversations to one character merely saying the other one’s name brings creative license to the very edge.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf brings a new shower of grit to the fantasy genre. Ye looking for a light spring read, and ye squeamish be ware. Tracker comes across as an unabashedly flawed mercenary, even though he never fails at his job, who wants to be a moral man. However, in the midst of several war-torn kingdoms, Tracker cannot distinguish the differences between himself and the bestiary of monsters he’s hired to slay, let alone find an honorable master to serve. This wandering warrior questions where he can stability, if even his closest friends consistently shift. Since this is the first of trilogy, the next volume promises even newer and more innovative explorations of genre and morality, and hopefully an answer to the gaps that Tracker has left in his story: what happened to those four years he won’t talk about? When did he split with Mossi? The movie rights to this novel have already been purchased, so look out for a film version, as well as volume two.
Three stars out of five.
Favorite quote: “We don’t own truth. Truth is truth and nothing you can do about it even if you hide it, or kill it, or even tell it.”
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