Tracker is a hunter, known in the thirteen kingdoms as one who has a nose – and he always works alone. But he breaks this rule when he joins a band seeking a lost child. His companions are strange and dangerous, from a giant to a witch to a shape-shifting Leopard, and each hides their own secrets.
As they follow the boy’s scent, from the perfumed citadels to infested rivers to enchanted darklands, set upon by murderous foes, Tracker wonders: who is this mysterious boy? Why don’t people want him found? And, crucially, who is telling the truth and who is lying?
What can I say about a book when its inside covers are full of other people’s catchy one-liner reviews already? It sells itself! In reality, I get slightly discouraged when I see so many reviews published with a relatively new books, but I was drawn by the plot and I am so glad I gave it a chance. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the African epic fantasy book I have been waiting years to read.
The very basic plot is that Tracker, a man who can find anything and anyone as long as he knows the smell, is asked to join a group of people looking for a stolen child. It goes much deeper than that. In this review I will try and avoid many spoilers, because this book, I feel, is worth having that page-turning wonder of what will come next, but as Tracker hears more and more about this mission he is being sent on, he finds that people’s stories don’t quite add up, and becomes absorbed by his search for the truth almost more than his search for the boy, and as the reader I was also pulled more in that direction.
The story itself is told by Tracker, our antihero, as he sits in a dungeon, to a man he calls an inquisitor, after the search is complete, so we know before anything begins that the child has been lost and found twice, the second time dead. Tracker is held under suspicion, and his story is a testimony. The story he tells does not start with the search though, rather meandering through Tracker’s childhood, giving us a background to his life and setting up certain recurring characters. It is told in the tradition of an oral story, or an epic, and there are tales within tales, which delighted me, though some might become annoyed by the sidetracks. It has a beautiful blend of fantasy, folklore, mythology, and hints here and there of a world we might recognise.
Tracker’s companions during the search perfectly embody this: there is a shape-shifting Leopard, who has been his friend for many years, an Ogo, who is a gigantic man, though this one has tired of killing and is melancholy, earning the name Sadogo. There is Nyka, a man with which Tracker seems to have some history, and who can shed his skin like a lizard. There is a witch, Sogolon, who knows the most about the boy and is hiding many secrets, a buffalo with a sense of humour, and Mossi, a man from the East who was a prefect. Along their journey they encounter many more extraordinary figures, but I won’t give away too much, so as not to take away the marvel at encountering them on the page. And the way James writes makes everything so vivid, I could see it all happening around me
That being said, the wonder of the magic comes with a lot of violence, and I have seen some people say it is an African Game of Thrones, which wouldn’t be too inaccurate. There is also a lot of sexual violence, which could probably have done with less detail, but I have also read worse, and the way Marlon James wrote it did not clash with the story or Tracker’s way of telling the story. Other types of violence are also very graphic, but I find that when reading you can choose the amount that you picture in your mind, unlike when watching TV. Of course, if these are things that will affect you a lot, then this is definitely a book to avoid.
It appears that Michael B. Jordan and Warner Bros has already acquired the film rights, and that makes me a bit uneasy (as all film adaptations should) because this world is so intricate and other that I am not sure it would benefit from being set down into one image. But it seems Marlon James will be part of the project, so it might not be all horrible.
This book deals a lot with truth and identity. When looking for someone or something, Tracker likes also to get to the bottom of the story, and as I already mentioned, he goes to great lengths to uncover the truth about this boy he is searching for. He is also a man with few attachments, or so he claims, and there are many phases in his wanderings that make him question his role and identity. Among these is a very interesting way in which he (and the book) look at gender. During his earlier years, when Tracker goes to live with his father’s tribe, the Ku, he learns that they believe that a boy is a boy and a girl both, until circumcision cuts the girl out of him, and a girl is both until the boy is cut out of her. Tracker, who did not grow up among them, is uncircumcised and so many say there is a woman within him. He battles with this throughout the book, and lashes out at all women, seeing them all as witches or unloving mothers. This is something that other characters point out to him, and though he does not achieve peace (and certainly does meet a lot of witches and mothers willing to abandon or sell their children) he at least reconciles with the female side of himself and with his mother, whom he had hated.
You cannot speak of gender without speaking of sexuality, and this book has a lot of queer characters, main characters included. It is sometimes hard to separate this from the rape and the violence, so at times I think it’s not very progressive, but it is still refreshing to have characters be gay without that being their entire storyline.
Another theme is that of slavery, which can’t really be separated even from a fictional Africa. It can sometimes slip into the background, just as slaves and servants “should”, but there are moments in this novel where the issue comes to the fore and asks you to deal with its reality. Again, I think Marlon James does a fantastic job in the way he writes it all.
This book is the first in a planned trilogy, and I shall definitely be reading the next one when it comes out: Moon Witch, Night Devil, which will be the story of Sogolon the witch. It will be interesting to see what Marlon James does with a female protagonist, especially one so morally grey (like Tracker) and the kind of character that in mainstream we would not tend to root for. But I am excited to find out.
Overall this is a magnificent book, and I hope it opens the door to more African fantasy.
Thank you Marlon James.