It’s possible that this book has had the greatest impact on me than any book I’ve read this year, so far. It didn’t always feel that way in the midst of reading it, but since I’ve finished, I’ve been thinking about it almost too often for my own health. Marlon James has done something extraordinary with Black Leopard Red Wolf and if the rest of the Dark Star trilogy is going to be anything like it, then those of us dedicated to following it are in for a wild time.
This is not my first Marlon James book. Several years ago, I read A Brief History of Seven Killings and I must confess: I was not impressed. Not because I thought it was a bad book; there was obviously something uniquely stylistic about Marlon James’ writing… But I personally just didn’t get it. I had a hard time following the story. My brain couldn’t seem to adjust to the rapid switches between English and Jamaican Patois. There were so many characters, I couldn’t remember who anyone was, and I really thought (mistakenly) that the main character was going to be Bob Marley. To this day, I can hardly remember anything about that book except for how confused I was, and that I’d resolved to one day read it again because the first time didn’t cut it. So, given that my first encounter with James didn’t go swimmingly, what drew me to jump on Black Leopard? The honest truth is that, once I saw the description of the book prior to its release, I was awash with something very like despair—because it looked like Marlon James had written exactly the kind of book I wanted to write, before I could write it. (Disadvantages of being born late. Insert eye roll.) And I was deathly afraid that it was going to be brilliant.
Spoiler alert: It was brilliant.
It was also very Marlon James. By which I mean: stylistically strange, even if familiar; difficult to get into the groove of; full of characters and plot occurrences a reader is hardly ever sure what to do with. And yet, all these had on me the opposite effect they’d had with A Brief History. I liked Black Leopard the more for them.
I wouldn’t call Black Leopard Red Wolf difficult to read, although I know that this is most likely the common sentiment experienced by people who simply did not expect the book to be written like this. I will say though, that it is difficult to learn how to read. Luckily for me, the concept of different texts requiring different reorientations to reading was fresh on my mind, thanks to this interesting article a friend had sent me not much earlier: How We Read, by Irina Dumitrescu. When I applied myself in re-learning how to read and figured out what the hell was happening with the narrative style, I assure you, I was blown away at the masterful employment of technique.
One of the things that stood out about the narrative style was the emphatic and unusual use of language. If you don’t think too deeply about it, it feels like this serves no purpose other than to thoroughly confuse a reader. But perhaps if you’re bilingual (and better if one of your languages is not Europe-derived), you might be able to catch on quicker to what is going on: this book is not written in English. It is only using English words to get its content across. If you speak a non-English language, try taking an English sentence, translating it into that language, and then translating again it in the most literal and direct way you can manage. (This is called back-translation.) You are likely to get a sentence made of English words that does not sound like the English sentence you started with. Now imagine doing this for a 700-page book. Yeah. Somehow, Marlon James wrote the entire book using some sort of back-translation. And I stand in awe.
The story of the novel was long and interesting and cool, but I can’t deny that I enjoyed the language as much as I enjoyed the plot. I sincerely hope this was James’s intention, because if so, it worked splendidly. The narrative is so conversation-heavy in a way that very often doesn’t add to the plot at all, but it’s just really fun to read. So perhaps James is making a statement in his narrative style: something along the lines of how the act of reading should be at least as much fun as the substance of the content one reads. As a writer and a reader, there’s something to learn from that. Also, the book has lots of superfluous and creative swearing which I think just makes a lot of serious things funnier.
In terms of fantasy, I think Black Leopard stays very true to its genre. It’s a huge book, is built on a composite world, and is part of a larger saga that is probably just going to get more confusing as time goes on. There is a hell of a lot of individual characters, so much so that it’s easy to lose track of them. The plot is so winding and not necessarily in chronological order. I will confess that I often forgot the book’s beginning while I was in the middle, and I struggled often to remember why whatever was happening was happening. And yet the seemingly disjointed plot elements prove themselves by the end to all have been not only connected to each other, but to something that we as the audience will not be privy to until the book’s sequels.
Knowing that fantasy itself has so many different styles and variations, I will also confess that Black Leopard Red Wolf felt like a very masculine kind of fantasy. It’s not like A Wizard of Earthsea which has basically no female characters, and it’s very, very far from the romance-heavy, almost distinctly feminine style of Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses series. And when I call Black Leopard masculine, I by no means mean cis-het masculine. Almost every character is homosexual or at least not straight and there’s certainly a substantial amount of sex. It’s just that the sex isn’t meant to do to a reader what A Court sex is meant to do to a reader. Besides which, there is an almost shocking amount of blood and violence, and at least one powerfully written depiction of real-time physical disfigurement had me recoiling. Maybe what I’m trying to say is that this book is not for the weak, and it’s not designed to make you feel fairytale good. More action movie than rom-com. Oh, also, the main character is a misogynist. I believe and truly hope this is an intentional move on Marlon James’ part, and there was some hope in the course of the story that the main character might eventually reach a point where he is able to properly diagnose and deal with the roots of his misogyny.
Speaking of the main character, Tracker, well… He’s very unlikeable. And I like him a whole bloody lot. For those who’ve been around, you might remember I wrote an entire appreciation post for the movie character CJ Walker, specifically because of how unlikeable and complex she was. Now Tracker? He’s sharp tongued and a hothead, my favorite kind of character. And he has even fewer obvious redeeming qualities than CJ! I can only surmise that the sole reason Tracker isn’t fully abandoned by 90% of the characters in the book is because of his physical or magical abilities—which, incidentally, have nothing in the least to do with his personality. Imagine people keeping you around only because you have a good nose and not because they like you in any way, shape or form. That’s what it’s like to be Tracker.
When I think about it carefully, there’s nothing that I really disliked about this book. Once I got into the groove of it, once I learnt how to read it, it was all over for me. I truly enjoyed the experience of reading the book, and I loved seeing African fantasy and mythological creatures from around the continent being brought alive in James’ own way. I finished the book convinced that Marlon James is fearless. Because Black Leopard Red Wolf (and I might extrapolate, the entire Dark Star trilogy) doesn’t have that super-quick commercial quality that other new writing like Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone have, but if there is any sense in the world, James’s fantasy trilogy and James himself are going to go down in history as bloody legendary. And if they don’t, I’ll be up in arms.
P.S. I’m furious at James and don’t know if I’ll ever forgive him for doing almost exactly what I want to do with African fantasy, before I could do it.