Black Leopard, Red Wolf (The Dark Star Trilogy, #1)
by Marlon James,
Published by Riverhead Books (2019)
This is a book that proclaimed to be an African Game of Thrones. Its publication was pretty timely, given that Game of Thrones (the TV series) was due to end in May, 2019. That comparison, however, would carry the weight of what George R.R. Martin had written through his novels so far, with the conclusion of that series presently awaited. Irrespective of the comparison, which I will address later, I think this is an African fantasy series which I will follow, and I am looking forward to reading the next installment soon. The strength of the writing derives in its ability to blend, uniquely, African mythology and narrative – while staying true to the voice James tries to give his characters.
First, we must address the structure of the tale. We’re introduced to a narrator, and the novel itself begins with one of the eeriest opening lines that come to memory,
“The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.”
Who is the child? How did they die? Who knew the child would die? Did anyone? Could someone have prevented it? Who says these lines?
We are, almost instantly, introduced to Tracker. We learn he is a hunted, renowned for his skill. We learn, that as with others who are at the top of their craft, he has principles he follows while working. We learn one of these was that he worked alone. We also learnt he broke that principle – learning to work in a group, and searching for a boy. (At which point you wonder whether this boy is the same child referred to above). James structures the novel as a series of chapters where Tracker takes you through a part of the plot, containing an event, or events, or introducing characters and stories which form part of a larger narration. Each of these ends “But that is not the story.”
That structure is pulled off marvelously. Its the first time I’ve noticed such explicit messaging by authors pushing individuals to read the next chapter. But that’s not the only purpose it serves. It heightens a lot of the intrigue, and the mystery, and foreshadows the ending beautifully – for you’re always left in wonder about what James’, (and Tracker’s) endgoals are. The unpredictability served me well.
This is very dark writing. There’s a lot of violence, some gory imagery, and a lot of opiod description. There’s a malevolence that hangs in the air throughout the novel, which I think is something that’s reminiscent of Game of Thrones. And contrary to what other leading reviews say, I don’t believe that this story lacks subtlety. The reason I say this is because we don’t know what the forthcoming installments in the series will bring – and there could be several plot points, or introduced elements that James chooses to use.
I docked a star because for the promise of description, there’s little to excite the imagination about the forests Tracker lurks. There is description of several things, but not much about the setting – in places where there could be. The other element that made me uncomfortable was the uncertainty with which some decisions in writing were made. There appears to be a lot of confusion, for example, about Trackers’ own identity (his sexuality, for example). If that was a deliberate decision, and I can understand why authors might choose to do that (for it mirrors the confusing nature of the spectrum in reality; and the conflict one often fees), it was written without care.
I hope James fixes that. The latter more than the former.
For everyone else looking to dive into African fantasy or African mythology, and to have your mind absolutely blown by a swarm of plot – this is a book you need to pick up. It will leave you baffled and craving more, and if you’re me – you will spend a night collecting material on African origin stories and mythology. And then you’ll watch Black Panther.