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Black Leopard, Red Wolf


Black Leopard, Red Wolf

A night-black sky. A hot, dusky expanse of villages, interwoven with ancient kingdoms and treacherous jungle, populated with power and violence. A journey driven by love and revenge, and the potent poison that erupts from their intersection. BLACK LEOPARD, RED WOLF is the first of the Dark Star trilogy by Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James. In a refreshingly queer and anti-patriarchal fantastical landscape set roughly in medieval Africa, James expertly blends the excitement and viscera of genre fantasy with his exquisite literary prose. The result is a hefty novel that successfully delivers again and again.

Tracker goes by no other name, though at times he is thought of as a wolf. He has a superpowered sense of smell and has been tasked with bringing a boy back to a queen. The boy has been missing for years. Tracker travels with a shifting array of characters, including, at times, a prefect, a giant and a batlike, winged creature. His journey becomes an odyssey, epic in scope and narrative, as he ventures through terrible challenges, always dogged by betrayal and trickery.

"...a hefty novel that successfully delivers again and again.... With more action than a superhero movie and more wisdom than many literary novels, BLACK LEOPARD, RED WOLF is Marlon James' latest masterpiece."

Because the motivation of his quest keeps changing, elusively. James interrogates the very meaning of truth and purpose, of identity and lineage, and of story itself. BLACK LEOPARD, RED WOLF is a celebratory, explosive pastiche of African myth, history and James' own propulsive imagination. It's embedded in every sentence and turn of the story. Motivations are declared and undone, allyships and even romantic partnerships are struck, then shattered. The novel asks a lot of its readers and pulls no punches. It leans into an African tradition of the trickster telling the story --- and the result is fiercely rewarding.

Tracker encounters creatures and mercenaries, vampires that leave victims filled with lightning, and children made of smoke and hope. He leads the reader through a range of bloody adventures, navigating a wonderfully queer, gender-fluid storyscape filled with passion and violence, mythology and memory. He meets a Leopard who shapeshifts into a man when he chooses, and they change each other's lives.

"Truth does not depend on you believing in it." The novel succeeds on so many levels. There's nothing preachy about it, and indeed, you won't find any preachers here, and characters with clean moral compasses are few and far between. James has crafted an astonishing cast of flawed, messy characters, Tracker included --- and he holds every single one of them accountable. There are so many precise gems of sentences that resonate so clearly even when you put the book down, but they're embedded in the plot; he proves them though the story. His explorations of feminism, of gender and gender fluidity, of queerness, of empire --- they're relevant to today, but they're also explicitly African and generations old, which satisfyingly emphasizes their power.

With more action than a superhero movie and more wisdom than many literary novels, BLACK LEOPARD, RED WOLF is Marlon James' latest masterpiece. It's an intricate, intersecting novel that explores so many formative African stories through the lens of an epic adventure. It's a very queer love letter to the hero's journey, and at once an indictment and a reclamation of what it means to be a hero. It's not easy to review, because it truly needs to be read to be experienced, and I highly recommend you take the time to do so. We are so lucky there's more of Dark Star on the way.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on February 22, 2019

Black Leopard, Red Wolf
by Marlon James