Book Review: Black Leopard, Red Wolf

Marlon James’ epic new novel is a literary phantasmagoria

In a recent NPR interview, Jamaican-born author Marlon James described a keen dislike for whodunits and voiced his preference instead for the written journey – the process, if you will. And, indeed, the opening sentences of his new, sprawling novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf may actually reveal the conclusion of a wild 600-plus-page escapade.

In this highly anticipated follow-up to his 2015 Man Booker Prize-winning novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, James has moved his focus from an imaginative but reality-oriented Jamaica and America to the more enigmatic African continent, and in so doing has created a literary phantasmagoria of fantastical creatures, mythical landscapes, and harrowing adventure. Like its predecessor, this novel is a cinematic, rambunctious tale populated by a plethora of memorable characters – one that also necessitates a long listing of names and descriptions in order to keep abreast of them all. And like Killings, there are plenty of intricate action sequences, disturbing images of violence, and ambisexual couplings.

In this first volume of his proposed Dark Star Trilogy, James has done a remarkable job of birthing a fantasy world that explodes as a mind-blowing mash-up of African folklore, Marvel Comics, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Through the perspective of title character Red Wolf, who is known throughout as simply “Tracker” because of his unparalleled sense of smell, we are led on a quest to find a missing child who may or may not hold the answer to a shocking secret ripe with palace intrigue. He shares the title with his shapeshifting man/leopard compadre, who is also an adversary of sorts. In addition to the aforementioned list of characters, the author also provides us with an inspired series of maps that detail both the regional North Lands at large, wherein the story takes place, and the more elaborate “city-states” that are at the center of the action. And although we apparently know the outcome from the get-go, it is James’ rich imagination in creating the journey through this complex fantasy world that keeps us glued to the page.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf

by Marlon James
Riverhead Books, 640 pp., $30

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