Jamaica – Black Leopard, Red Wolf

Guest Post by Ayal Hayut-Man

Trigger warning: sexual violence, child abuse, sever graphic violence

“I had a purpose, given to me by my blood, my father and my grandfather. I had purpose and I told them to go fuck themselves with it. You use that word purpose like there is something noble to it, something of the best gods. Purpose is the gods saying what kings say to men they want to rule. […] You want to know what’s my purpose? To kill the men who killed my brother and father… To kill the men who killed my brother, because they killed him because he killed one of theirs. Who killed one of his, who killed one of theirs, and on and on while even gods die. […] So no, I don’t want purpose and I don’t want children born in blood. You want to know what I want? I want to kill this bloodline. This sickness. End this poison. My name ends with me.”

Tracker (no other name) is an infamous mercenary; he has a red wolf’s eye, a nose that can track any person from any distance, and a spell cast upon him by a Sangoma (a kind of witch, but don’t call her that) that protects him against metals and poisons. At the beginning of the book, he is captured by the agents of the king of the south and accused of murdering the child he was paid to find – twice, several years apart.

Instead of just answering the questions he was asked, Tracker chooses to tell his entire life story, which in writing encompasses over 600 pages. It begins with his early childhood and continues until the mission that went wrong – or maybe not? He keeps on repeating that he really wanted to kill the child, even though he eventually didn’t. This is the framework of Black Leopard, Red Wolf.

An Epic African Fantasy

While the book itself was written by a Jamaican author, the fictional country in which it takes place is strongly based on the continent of Africa. We see this in the geography and climate zones, but mainly in the culture and myths. Marlon James writes that, to build the world and its magic system, he conducted a comprehensive study of African traditions, with the help of local and international research institutions. In that respect, this book is an exciting and ambitious project, that came with a significant amount of hype – which included the actor and producer, Michael B. Jordan (Eric Killmonger in The Black Panther) purchasing the filming rights for the book before it was even published.

Tracker’s story begins with his childhood in a small town. He grew up with a physically abusive father and a neglectful mother from the Ku tribe near the river. As a teenager, he departs his home in favor of the savannah and rejoins the tribe his parents left, but even there he can’t find his place. While there he meets the leopard – also nameless, and capable of transforming into a human (yes, it’s a leopard who becomes a man, not the other way around) – and they develop a love-hate relationship that will last for the rest of their lives. Rejected and lonely, Tracker becomes a nomad and rents out his services to the highest bidder, even though he maintains a type of personal code of honor; for example, when he is sent to find a woman who escaped from her abusive husband, he returns her, but also provides her with a recipe for a traceless poison that she can mix into his drink.

Most of the book is dedicated to the mission for which Tracker is hired together with eight other people. A tribal elder who quarreled with the king of the North is murdered together with his family, except for one boy who is missing – and they are tasked with finding him. Of course, they very quickly learn that the mission is not exactly what it was claimed to be, the party keeps running into trouble, and they start to fall apart over personal disputes. The journey, which at times feels like an action-packed D&D adventure, takes the party across half the continent and forces them to confront vampires and necromancers, witches and werehyenas (like werewolves only worse), white magicians (the African version of black wizards), the darkest version of Spider-man’s story that I have ever encountered, and a huge variety of additional challenges and foes.

A Violent, Frustrating Reading Experience

Tracker, the protagonist/narrator, is a complex character. He is portrayed as an unsympathetic person lacking empathy and conscience, and also pretty misogynistic. He’s frequently violent and likes to swear. On the other hand, the further you read, the more you learn how unreliable a narrator he is when it comes to himself and his motives: he’s not an uncaring person, but rather a person who was broken by the world time and again; as the quote above reveals (one of the best in the book), even his disconnectedness is a form of rebellion. At the same time, this understanding did not necessarily help me connect to Tracker or become emotionally involved in his experiences. 

My lack of immersion in the novel also had to do with the fact that it wasn’t exactly clear where the plot was going. The journey that is the focus of the book only begins a third of the way in, and until that point the plot can basically be described as “Tracker does all sorts of things”; even when the main plot finally kicks in, it takes a while to truly understand the stakes and why I should care. The narrative framework, while interesting, doesn’t fully make sense: even if there is a justification for the length of the story Tracker is telling the inquisitor who is questioning him, it’s not clear why he is sharing intimate details such as his soul-searching or love affairs, which are a significant part of the plot but likely of no interest to his captor. Another problem, which is more technical but still frustrating, is the dialogues: they tend to get mixed up, with lines and lines of dialogue in which it is not clear who said what, and several instances in which it appears as though the author himself got confused and mixed up the speakers.

This book is also probably the most violent I’ve ever read, and I say this as a huge George R. R. Martin and Steven King fan. A scene, around a third of the way in, in which Tracker is raped by a pack of hyenas after a werehyena slowly eats his eye while it is still attached to him, almost caused me to quit reading without finishing the book. Fortunately, this was the most horrifying scene, but there were definitely others that came close; be forewarned, and come prepared.

Confusing Wealth of Cultures and Ideas

One of the biggest strengths of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is its richness: beyond the flashes of different cultures and ideas – which remain relatively marginal – there are plenty of types of magic, monsters and enchanted areas which I had never previously encountered in fantasy (one example, among many, is the definition of a vampire which is much broader than European fantasy, and includes a man made entirely of bugs, and a person who turns into a bird that shoots lightning). On the other hand, this wealth also creates a lot of confusion. There are just too many types of monsters and magic systems at the same time, which means that as the reader, it was almost impossible to figure out what was stronger than what, and what to expect – a not-insignificant problem in a book that is strongly battle-oriented.

Gender is one of the main themes of the book, and it’s handled in a very interesting manner. The Ku tribe, from which Tracker hails, believes that every man is born with a part of a woman inside him, and every woman is born with a part of a man. The ritual of circumcision, which is performed on both men and women when they reach adulthood, “stabilizes” them from a gender perspective. Tracker was never circumcised, and so the woman is still part of him: that’s how he explains to himself why he is attracted to men – a preference that seems to be shared by almost every single man he encounters. In fact, I can’t think of a single main character who  could be defined as straight – most are somewhere along the bisexual spectrum, and there are many appearances that challenge views on gender from a biological perspective (for example, the female werehyenas all have male genitals). Tracker’s misogyny is also not just an anecdotal piece of information, but rather a significant conflict he is forced to deal with and which connects to his relationship with his mother, and is discussed with other characters and challenged by them. Without revealing spoilers, I will mention that the mission the party is sent to accomplish is also later revealed to be deeply connected with gender power dynamics.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is intended to be the first volume in a trilogy, and the ending causes me to suspect that the entire book was in fact a build-up for an even more ambitious later plot which will directly address themes of colonialism and African identity. Nevertheless, personally I am pretty sure I will not be reading the second book once it’s published. It took me almost a month to finish reading this book; there are many very interesting elements, but at the end of the day they are not bound together in a story that is interesting and tight enough to captivate me as a reader, definitely not in a volume of this length.

About The Author

Marlon James was born in Jamaica in 1970. His novel A Brief History of Seven Killings won the 2015 Man Booker Prize. It was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature for fiction, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction, and the Minnesota Book Award. It was also a New York Times Notable BookJames is also the author of The Book of Night Women, which won the 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Minnesota Book Award, and was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction and an NAACP Image Award. His first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for first fiction and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and was a New York Times Editors’ Choice. James divides his time between Minnesota and New York.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf

Author: Marlon James

Publisher: Riverhead Books

Published: 2020

Pages: 640

Format reviewed: Digital