I was two pages into Man Booker winner Marlon James’ epic fantasy “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” when I experienced an exhilarating literary déjà vu. It was the same feeling I had when I first read Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and, more recently, Tomi Adeyemi’s “Children of Blood and Bone,” the awareness that I was reading a complex surreal saga that demanded serious attention and that I was reading something new and remarkable.
Like Adeyemi, James’ world-building rises out of African myths and cultural traditions rooted in that continent’s diverse history. The novel’s settings are stunning in their detail and expansive in their geography, but it’s James’ creative flexing of the oral tradition of storytelling as the novel’s backbone and his gender-fluid, omnisexual main character, Tracker, that may well make this novel a standard-bearer for future fantasies.
“You want truth or story?” Tracker asks the Inquisitor interrogating Tracker in a filthy jail cell in the opening pages, and because Tracker insists “all stories are true,” the trickster doesn’t wait for an answer. So begins the tale. One story leads to another and another. Some spiral off in tangents about the history of a kingdom of ruined towers, a curse of a powerful witch, or the despotic reign of a brutal slaver. Each cycle of stories spins the novel forward as Tracker retells the search for a mysterious child.
Many fantasy novels in Western cultures are built on classical archetypes and Judeo-Christian dichotomies — good or evil, rich or poor, male or female, black or white, adult or child, human or not. But James skillfully and often humorously plays off of these traditions in his allusions, his metaphors, and especially in Tracker, who is all of the above (I’m pretty sure Tracker would make Gandalf blush).
Tracker is a “man and a woman” trying “a new belief every day.” Philosophical and witty, ribald and raunchy, Tracker is “nobody’s blood,” a hunter of “lost folk” with a nose that can track a memory from its “sight, smell, taste.” Tracker hunts with Leopard, a shape-shifter, “a wanderer who moves “from land to land, kingdom to kingdom … where people’s skin was paler than sand, and every seven days they ate their own god.”
While searching for the child, Tracker encounters “flesh-eaters and blood-suckers,” tree-like giants, roof-walkers, cursed children, a girl who “turns to blue smoke when she loses her temper,” witches, nymphs, spirits, lots of “malcontent creatures,” and a black goddess who walks “as if all movement was dance.” All of them weave into Tracker’s story to become a pattern “on kente cloth … spinning even though everything was still.”
Carole E. Barrowman is a writer and professor at Alverno College in Milwaukee.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf
By: Marlon James.
Publisher: Riverhead, 620 pages, $30.
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