Weird Book, Pretty Good
Black Leopard, Red Wolf Brings Dark Fantasy to Africa
“Fantasy books”, I told my 14-year-old son as my family sat down to play our first-ever round of Dungeons and Dragons, “are generally terrible. They’re mostly written by the types of dorks you expect to write fantasy books–weird white loner dudes who don’t understand how actual people operate in the world. And so the stuff they write isn’t really about anything other than the world in the book. The first thing that you see when you open a fantasy book? A map. And then sometimes you get a list of the characters and a little bit about each of them, which is usually good because otherwise you’d forget them as soon as you put the book down for the night. Ok, who wants to be the Dwarf Cleric?”
I drag what I once loved. By the time I was my son’s age, I’d read The Lord of the Rings three times. An obsessive D&D player, I’d started to understand that fantasy books were generally terrible thanks mostly to writers like Terry Brooks, whose Tolkien-ripoff Shannara books somehow just keep coming. Robert Jordan wrote 12 books in his Wheel of Time series and died before finishing the series. His estate hired Brandon Sanderson to write three more. That’s 15 books, 11,000 or so pages, for those keeping score at home.
Some fantasy books aim at people older than 13. The bloated misery porn of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones novels comes to mind first. But there’ve been others. The first “adult” fantasy I read was Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. The hero, Thomas Covenant, a writer from our modern world who has leprosy (yep) finds himself transported into a Fantasy Realm, where he’s greeted as a Powerful Hero. He promptly goes a bit nuts and rapes a local girl but remains the good guy. It’s a deeply problematic series, obviously, indicative of “adult fantasy.” Dark and Edgy doesn’t necessarily mean Insightful or Good.
Gonna Take a Lot (of Pages) to Drag Me Away
Marlon James has somewhat famously referred to Black Leopard, Red Wolf and the two fantasy novels that will form the rest of the Dark Star Trilogy as an “African Game of Thrones”. Of COURSE it’s a trilogy. Fantasy-book law requires that there be at least three volumes.
It’s important to get this out of the way: the genre absolutely needs authors who aren’t weird white loner dudes. James won the 2015 Man Booker Prize for his A Brief History of Seven Killings, and it’s odd but great that he’s diving into a genre that needs both diversity and actual writing ability. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is an important book in that regard. But…man, I wish it had been better.
Tracker, the Red Wolf of the title, goes by the name of Tracker because that’s his thing. He has a super-nose that allows him to find the scent of anyone, and makes a pretty good living doing so. He gets around a magical version of pre-colonial Africa, which is full of critters and enchanted people that wouldn’t seem out of place in Narnia: vampires, giants, creepy assassin-demons that can only walk on the ceilings (which sounds silly but in James’ hands are creepy as hell), and witches. The titular Black Leopard, a shapeshifter named Leopard, turns into, you guessed it, leopard. Tracker and Leopard aren’t noble warriors, they’re mercenaries, hired by a slaver to find a missing boy, alive if possible. If you read the first sentence of the book, you get a pretty good clue as to how that turns out.
The Leopard, The Sex With The Old Witch, and the Wardrobe
And make no mistake: this ain’t Narnia. James’ world has all sorts of cool stuff, but for every talking water buffalo there’s all sorts of rapes, mutilations, violations, and killings. Men and women alike provide grist for the mill. Tracker has something of a moral code, a soft spot for kids, but that doesn’t stop him for doing his share of wetwork. Also, he has gross sex with a really, really old witch. If you’re put off by George R. R. Martin’s “realistic” fantasy world, you’re really not going to enjoy James’.
And if you like the basic “Party of Adventures Walks Some, Stops, Fights Bad Guys, Walks Some More, Stops, Fights More Bad Guys, Repeats This Several Times, Fights Big Bad, Saves The Land” fantasy narrative, you’re REALLY not going to enjoy Black Leopard, Red Wolf. The book doesn’t contain much in the way of a plot, and ultimately the plot matters less than the telling. James leans into African diction and cadence. Tracker narrates the story to an inquisitor, and he’s a meandering, possibly unreliable narrator. It’s a good choice, but a frustrating one at times, because it’s really hard to figure out a lot of what’s going on. Are the fish that look like women actually mermaids, or just fish? Is that talking water buffalo really talking? Did they find the missing kid? Wait. Are they looking for him again?
Still, if you’re a fan of genre writing and you’re looking for something different, you might like Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Marlon James has said that the next two books in the series will tell the same story, but from different perspectives. So maybe by the end of the third book, I’ll not only appreciate the style, I’ll actually have figured out just what the hell was going on.
(Riverhead Books, February 5)