The first installment of Marlon James’ Dark Star trilogy tests the reader’s commitment. “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.” Of course, that’s not entirely true—620 pages follow. James, a deft stylist with a taste for violence and grand revelation (just look to his Man Booker Prize–winning historical saga, 2014’s A Brief History of Seven Killings), is something like an orchestrator when it comes to inverting any expectations a reader might bring to his work. His symphonies are layered, pulse with heat, and spurn containment from all sides. Early on, one of his characters tells us: “Lie was truth and truth was a shifting, slithering thing.” In Black Leopard, Red Wolf, truth is the most elusive currency of all. Who and what is to be believed?
Our guide is an expert hunter-investigator-mercenary known as Tracker. “My name was my father’s possession, so I left it by his gate,” he explains. The heart and hero of the novel, Tracker has a special gift for “for finding what would rather stay lost”; his nose can trace people by their scent across seemingly impossible terrains and distances. He is also a troubled soul being held captive by an unnamed jailer after failing to find a missing child. That is where Black Leopard, Red Wolf commences; it is narrated with attentive hindsight from his point of view. “What does the bearer do with the thing he can’t bear, throw it off?” Tracker speculates from the dungeon. “Let it crush him underneath?”
Those questions come at the outset of a journey so fat with adventure and emotional complexity it feels mythic in scope. The result is something of a grab bag of inspiration, pulling from J. R. R. Tolkien, Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez, and George R. R. Martin. Luckily enough, Tracker manages to mostly avoid the crush of evil forces along the way. His travels take him across multiple kingdoms aswarm with flying beasts, cursed children, bush fairies, river witches, shape-shifters, Blood Swamp trolls, and “night demons from an age before this age.”
James doesn’t entirely redraw fantasy’s classic narrative elements here. Instead, he skillfully plays within their parameters, writing with an acrobatic sense of invention to create a story that feels fresh and lived-in. He infuses African history into a folkloric wonderland with the occasional trapdoor—a landscape dense with feeling and inevitable loss. By turns absorbing, messy, and affectingly sharp, Black Leopard, Red Wolf unfolds with a sustained hunger. It is a hero’s tale soaked in blood.
To find the missing child, Tracker joins a ragtag crew. (Their conflicting personalities bring to mind Marvel’s space-age eccentrics from Guardians of the Galaxy.) Tale of the child, though, warrants curiosity: a mysterious orbit of death surrounds him. All who have sought his whereabouts have come to fatal ends. Again, this is James we are dealing with, and even the most spelled-out facts are not entirely what they at first appear. We are to believe the boy is the book’s center—the key to unlocking its dark labyrinth of secrets—but, really, he exists somewhere at the periphery, always out of reach. A puzzling endpoint. James seemingly employs this narrative sleight of hand to test our instincts as readers. What is to be trusted?
James situates the book’s soul in the bond he fuses between Tracker and Leopard, a shape-shifter with “whiskers and wild hair that made him look more lion than panther.” (As the name implies, he can mutate at will into a leopard, which he prefers to human form). When they cross paths after years apart, Tracker entertains Leopard’s request to join the search team. Once brash and stormy, Tracker has matured into a judicious, sensitive protagonist who is prone to bouts of benevolence. That Tracker still harbors romantic feelings for him helps too. “At the very least come because something will intrigue you and it won’t be the coin,” Leopard says to him. “Now speaking of desires …”
As templates go, the ally-adversary-lover relationship Tracker and Leopard forge is one of the book’s strongest distinctions—and may very well be one of literature’s more exciting partnerships in recent memory. It’s rife with sex and sexual tension, with love, vulnerabilty, and wisdom, and you can feel James is at something of a creative summit when he conjures their bond on the page. He writes of Tracker and Leopard’s reunion with a kind of full-body awareness: “I took his hand but he pulled away and grabbed me, pulling in tight. I was ready to say this feels like something from boy lovers in the east until I felt myself go soft in his arms, weak, so weak I barely hugged back. I felt like crying, like a boy.”
Elsewhere, the book reckons with sexuality and gender in thoughtful, studied strokes. Tracker is considered to be shoga, a label for gay men, though queerness, and identity on the whole, is much more fluid, much more beautifully unsettled in James’ universe (our human terms don’t quite satisfy). Shoga men, as he writes, have a woman inside of them “that cannot be cut out”; they are “men with the first desire.” In one telling, Tracker’s uncle describes it as such: “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.” It is territory James knows well. In a 2015 essay for The New York Times Magazine, he came out publicly for the first time, writing: “I teach that characters arise out of our need for them. By now, the person I created in New York was the only one I wanted to be.”
It is the naked totality, the intense desire for personal truth, that makes Black Leopard, Red Wolf such a worthy read. It is a book that doesn’t just rise to the moment but captures it.
It is that same naked totality, that intense desire for personal truth, that makes Black Leopard, Red Wolf such a worthy read. It is a book that doesn’t just rise to the moment but captures it. In doing so, James joins a class of black fantasists who have, in recent years, found acclaim in the literary firmament—N. K. Jemisin, Kai Ashante Wilson, and Nnedi Okorafor among them. History is a stubborn gatekeeper, but now that Jemisin has won unprecedented back-to-back-to-back Hugos, it’s harder to argue that her writing is “boring message-fic.” The questions feel more potent than ever: Who gets to tell what stories, and why?
Fortunately, our universe expands and changes, and James’ new fantasy epic fits quite snugly into the genre’s necessary growth. Even so, for all of the book’s technical and narrative brilliance, it falls victim to the gluttony of the genre, which, as one WIRED colleague noted, can feel “uniquely daunting.” But James mostly traverses that sprawl with the complexity of a classical portraitist: He sketches and paints and slathers depth onto a canvas of infinite possibilities, textures, and horrors. It is a history and a world richly and hauntingly imagined. “I made up a language in which to exist,” the poet Elizabeth Alexander once said. Here, Marlon James takes that framing a step further. By offering us a shaky version of the truth, he suggests that our trust in traditional narratives may have been misplaced all along.
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