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Marlon James’ ‘Black Leopard’: The novel that rewrites the fantasy playbook

This amazing fantasy novel, the first of a series, shows the author in incredible form. It's truly what fantasy should be: thought-provoking, moving, and astonishing.

Marlon James, author of "Black Leopard, Red Wolf."
Marlon James, author of "Black Leopard, Red Wolf."Read moreLeft: Mark Seliger

Black Leopard, Red Wolf

The Dark Star Trilogy: Book 1

By Marlon James

Riverhead. 620 pp. $30

Reviewed by Ron Charles

Stand aside, Beowulf. There’s a new epic hero slashing his way into our hearts, and we may never get all the blood off our hands.

Marlon James is a Jamaican-born writer who won the 2015 Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, his blazing novel about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley. Now, James is clear-cutting space for a whole new kingdom. Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first spectacular volume of a planned trilogy, rises up from the mists of time, glistening like viscera. James has spun an African fantasy as vibrant, complex, and haunting as any Western mythology, and nobody who survives reading this book will ever forget it. That thunder you hear is the jealous rage of Olympian gods.

“We tell stories to live,” says Tracker, the indefatigable narrator, who tells a lot of stories but doesn’t let many people live. Thrown out of the house as a teenager, Tracker casts off everything that reminds him of his father — including all clothing. “The lion needs no robe and neither does the cobra,” Tracker announces. He quickly makes a name for himself as a kind of medieval private investigator. “It has been said that I have a nose,” he admits, but it’s more like a superpower: the ability to track people by their scent over hundreds of miles.

Tracker’s success eventually gets him an assignment that becomes the novel’s central story line. In a time of cataclysmic political upheaval and rumors of war between competing kingdoms, powerful people want to retrieve a mysterious missing boy. Tracker is convinced the child is dead, but the case touches a deep sorrow in him, and he agrees to join a gang of contentious characters who are convinced they can find him.

Ocean’s Eleven has nothing on this ensemble. Tracker’s team includes a reticent buffalo, a witch who rises up from a puddle of oil, an archivist who’s also a master swordsman, and a melancholy giant who won’t stop lamenting his kills. But the most endearing of these characters is Tracker’s lover, a man who changes at will into a leopard. He’s a typically feline companion: unpredictably hot or cold. James creates wonderful banter between them, and he’s fearless about exploring the sexuality of these two virile heroes. His Tracker and Leopard are Achilles and Patroclus with more fur and fury.

Harvesting mythology and fantasy from the rich soil of Africa — from the Anansi tales to the Sundiata Epic and so much more — James hangs a string of awesome adventures on this quest for the missing boy. As these bloody stories and their mysteries pile up, I sometimes felt as lost as Tracker does in the woods, despite the inclusion of James’ five hand-drawn maps. (A list of characters at the front of the book contains more than 80 names, which is almost more intimidating than clarifying.)

But I didn’t much mind the bouts of discombobulation because I was always enchanted by James’ prose, with its adroit mingling of ancient and modern tones. (The chapter epigraphs are in the West African language of Yoruba.) He’s constructed this book with the same joints as the old epics: episodes of gripping intensity linked loosely together in an arc that resolves itself only at a distance. Scene by scene, the fights are cinematic spectacles, spellbinding blurs of violence set to the sounds of clanging swords and tearing tendons.

Beneath all these hair-raising fights and chases thrum profound issues of identity and freedom that resonate in our own far less brawny era. It’s particularly fascinating to see James revise the racist palette of Western symbolism. In Tracker’s world, the richest, most gorgeous colors are shades of brown and black, and nothing is more corrupt, more vile and disgusting than the work of the White Scientists. The treatment they subject Tracker to is unspeakable.

Honestly, you’ll want to read Black Leopard, Red Wolf wearing a smock. It’s an extraordinarily violent story, including a surfeit of sexual attacks. The ancient world is not a pretty or kind place: Men, women, and children are tortured and raped to death. But that only makes Tracker’s concealed tenderness more poignant. Cast out, he feels the pain that all discarded beings feel, especially the littlest and most despised ones. He’d cut out my tongue for saying it, but beneath that impervious exterior is a kind and gentle soul.

Ron Charles reviews books for the Washington Post, where this review originally appeared.