Black Leopard, Red Wolf
Marlon James is perhaps best known for his Man Booker Prize winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, a masterful work that experiments with both language and narrative structure while also being a great read. When I read that James was planning to write a fantasy epic, I was thrilled—finally someone who writes beautifully and who will continue the tradition of those few writers (Carter, Le Guin, Butler, McCaffrey) who've pushed the boundaries of what is largely thought of as a genre rife with Eurocentric male-dominated hero narratives. But when I read taglines describing James's planned trilogy as "an African Game of Thrones," I was less excited. I'm a huge life-long fan of fantasy but find Game of Thrones largely uninteresting and misogynistic both in text and television form. Surely, James could do better than that, and as soon as I started reading this first installment in what will be a trilogy, I realized that he largely has. There is a depth of storytelling and world-creating in Black Leopard, Red Wolf that rivals Beowulf, Lord of the Rings, EarthSea, or even Dune. This is fantasy at is most complicated, entertaining, and mythically weighty.
As engrossing as it can be, this novel is not an easy read. James's syntax and sentence structure, his complex plot, side-plots, and storylines can be very challenging but with over 600 pages, there is time to acclimate to James's language and world building, to puzzle out the intricacies of the varied narrative lines. He even provides an essential list of characters at the beginning and the genre requisite world maps throughout. Somehow this world does not feel new, but instead left me attempting to parse what is rewritten or borrowed from African myth or history, what is a nod to other narratives (comic books, movies, TVs, other fantasy series), and what is an entirely Jamesian creation. It's likely that at some point someone will write a codex to this work (and the planned trilogy) but ultimately, while these references give added depth to the work, it's the story that's the point. In grand epic fantasy and mythic tradition, the novel is built around a central quest: a search for a boy who we eventually learn may or may not be the rightful heir and King to the Kingdom of the North. Told as confession to an Inquisitor by a man who has forgotten he was ever named anything but "Tracker," we know from the outset that the child at the center of the quest is already dead and that he claims he did not kill him.
As in all good fantasy tales, throughout the quest, we meet new characters and learn about their powers and weaknesses, their histories and tragedies—all filtered through Tracker's opinions and prejudices. This is, after all, his version of events. Tracker is an equally likeable and loathsome protagonist—insecure, jealous, often a liar, struggling between embracing and fighting his appetites, a man whose relationship with ethics and honor is often distant at best, and to whom violence has become second nature. His brutality is often shocking, but he is a warrior in a violent world. Like any fantasy hero and member of a quest, Tracker has a tragic past and a superpower: his sense of smell. He's become Tracker because he can find what is lost by using his all-powerful nose. But he is also fallible: unable to express his love for the shape-shifter Leopard and, whether because of a childhood betrayal or just general misogyny, unable to see women as other than witches, bitches, or whores.
And this is a problem with the novel, as is common in fantasy novels written by men, women take a decidedly secondary role. In James's world women are often little more than chattel, punching bags, rape victims, or pawns in political games. While one could argue (as George RR Martin has in defense of his own fantasy world) that if one sets a fantasy narrative in a world based on real-world historical narratives, women are going to suffer. But James is better than this and as a reader, I expect more from him. One could also say that this is a tale being told by the hero/trickster Tracker and that any misogyny is entirely his point of view. As just one example, when Tracker first meets the Sangoma ("anti-witch"), Tracker insults and berates her, "Witch, crone, scar-speckled Gangatom bitch … crone with a boy sucking a tit with no milk." and so on. But Tracker lives in a world James has created, a world where a man marries many wives because he only has daughters and wants a son, where women are sold into slavery or to become concubines and no one really cares, and girls are raised to serve as sacrifice or eventual rape and murder victims.
James does an excellent job of writing gay male characters and their inner conflicts—Tracker and Leopard both prefer men whether or not this behavior is deemed acceptable in the various countries they travel through and a central part of the narrative is the combative relationship between the two. And while it's apparent James can write strong female characters, they are few in number and never truly central to the novel. The witch Sogolon who becomes both antagonist to and quest companion with Tracker is perhaps the most fully realized female character. Her verbal sparring matches with Tracker are some of the most compelling (and darkly funny) scenes in the book. One could also argue that the King's sister serves as a balance of power in the broader narrative but it's just not enough. To be fair to James, this is only the first novel of a trilogy and told from the point-of-view of a man whose relationship with women is largely negative so I hold out hope that women will fare better in the next two books.
Overall, James has drawn a hugely compelling world full of political intrigue on the level of Dune, ultra-violent but choreographed fight scenes, raw sexuality, a terrifying forest, enchanted portals, strangely gifted children, demi-goddesses, powerful witches, despotic rulers, devious prostitutes, slave caravans, and a group of questing anti-heroes all combine to draw the reader into an epic tale that is equal parts frustrating and absorbing. Just as Tracker can be seen as an unreliable narrator—after all, the series of stories he tells are all nestled within his testimony to an Inquisitor—throughout the novel there are competing versions of events, stories told by characters whose goals are to obfuscate, and a mystery that may not be a mystery at all. This novel is as much about the way stories are told as it is about the impossibility of discovering the "truth" at the center of Tracker's quest.