Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

With simple but unusually placed words, Marlon James created a world that is so enchanting that readers can almost feel the scent of African deserts, savannas, a town high among tree crowns or carved into a rock face. The author relied on African folklore, myths, and legends to come up with beings, good and bad, on which some fantasy writers surely envy him. The novel forks into a bunch of substories, one more compelling, violent, lyrical, and fantastic than the other.

A word about the language: It is simple, sometimes too simple, like a child learning to put words together to form sentences. That may be confusing at the beginning, but I quickly got used to it. And it’s bloody brilliant ‒ just like everything else in this book: very bloody, truly brilliant, and just bloody brilliant. You can’t have people in prehistoric communities talk like Oxford professors, nor is it realistic to present them bathed, scented, and trimmed. But beware, James’ seemingly simple sentences sometimes hide something altogether different.

The novel starts with the words, “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.” Yes, James tells you everything at the very beginning, but you will forget that the child is dead. You will even forget that the child exists! And only a true master can do that.

The story goes like this: A hunter, or rather, mercenary, known only by the name Tracker accepts an assignment to find a little boy who is crucial for the kingdom. Tracker is known for his nose “for finding what would rather stay lost.” Although he always works alone, now he agrees to join forces with a strange group: a leopard-man shape-shifter, a sad half-giant, a witch… However, something about the story of the boy doesn’t sound right, and Tracker will soon find out that he can’t rely on anyone. Or, as he puts it, “Lie was truth and truth was a shifting, slithering thing”.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is marked by incredible adventures in a magical, brutal, but beautiful world in which the characters can’t trust anyone or anything since even a good-natured tree or indifferent stone can be something else entirely. And the characters are unforgettable: Dirt mermaids, witches and antiwitches, grass trolls, lightning birds, sorcerers, prostitutes, queens, bush fairies, mad monkeys… Danger lurks at every turn, as well as betrayal and great sorrow. The specter of human and half-human sentiments in this book is amazing.

The most striking thing about this book is love where you expected it the least. Love is the reason, the hidden agenda, and the answer to most things in this vivid, violent, crazy world. Whenever I hear someone complaining about the excessive violence in this book, I have to ask: How many people would do what Nyka did for Nsaka Ne Vampi? We gush over examples of sacrifice for love in classics, but almost nobody mentions what Nyka resigned himself to for the love of his woman. Or what Nsaka later endured to save him. And, finally, let’s not forget that the revenging killing spree in the last part of the book is fueled by lost love.

Besides violence, sexuality plays a big part in this book. James isn’t explicit when writing about sex, but there is a lot of lovemaking going on. Tracker is a shoga, homosexual. And shoga men have a woman inside of them “that cannot be cut out”. They are “men with the first desire.” In one telling, Tracker’s uncle explains to him: “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.”

Yes, the book is violent – and so is life. James didn’t write anything that didn’t happen at some point in history. And I think that is the reason many people are disturbed by his prose. The story of mingi children made me cry, not because James is overly emotional. On the contrary, he is very matter of fact about those things since it best suits the time frame and collective consciousness of his story. But that approach made me feel the pain more acutely. It brought to mind all the malformed children killed or exposed during history, not so long ago. The story about Sadogo brought to mind the human urge for cruelty and violence. Forget the gladiators, it’s enough to look at box matches or even some reality shows. What about the white scientists? They exist in other forms today. Children raised by the enemies turned to hate and fight their people and families through history… Everything upsetting in this book rings a loud bell. James reminds us that man is the worst beast on this planet. At the same time, James reminds us that man is the kindest, noblest creature driven by love on this planet. “But that is not the story”, as Tracker would say…

Conclusion: If you haven’t read this fantastic book already, do yourself a favor and start reading.

Favorite quotes:

I will admit, at least to my darkest soul, that there was nothing worse to be than in the middle of many souls, even souls that you might know, and still be lonely.

Not everything the eye sees should be spoken by the mouth.

If you lived all your life with monsters, what was monstrous?

Truth is truth and nothing you can do about it even if you hide it, or kill it, or even tell it. It was truth before you open your mouth and say, That there is a true thing.

You ever see a man who doesn’t know he’s unhappy, Leopard? Look for it in the scars on his woman’s face. Or in the excellence of his woodcraft and iron making, or in the masks he makes to wear himself because he forbids the world to see his own face. I am not happy, Leopard. But I am not unhappy that I know.

Sadness is not the absence of happiness, but the opposite of it.

What is evil anyway, a sad soul infected with devils who take his will, or a man thinking that of all his mother’s children he loves himself the best?

Better to be with the ancestors than to live bonded to somebody else, who might be kind, who might be cruel, who might even make you master to many slaves of your own, but was still master over you.

Genre: Fantasy, Fiction, Mythology

Describe this book with one word: Magical

The perfect beverage to sip while reading this book: Oshikundu

This book’s best musical buddy: Homeless by Ladysmith Black Mambazo

Awards: Locus Award for Best Horror Novel (2020), Audie Award Nominee for Fantasy (2020), Los Angeles Times Book Prize Nominee for Science Fiction, Fantasy & Speculative Fiction (Ray Bradbury Prize) (2020), Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror (2019),  National Book Award Finalist for Fiction (2019), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fantasy (2019)

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