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The Dark Star Trilogy #1

Black Leopard, Red Wolf

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Goodreads Choice Award
Nominee for Best Fantasy (2019)
In the first novel in Marlon James's Dark Star trilogy, myth, fantasy, and history come together to explore what happens when a mercenary is hired to find a missing child.

Tracker is known far and wide for his skills as a hunter: "He has a nose," people say. Engaged to track down a mysterious boy who disappeared three years earlier, Tracker breaks his own rule of always working alone when he finds himself part of a group that comes together to search for the boy. The band is a hodgepodge, full of unusual characters with secrets of their own, including a shape-shifting man-animal known as Leopard.

Drawing from African history and mythology and his own rich imagination, Marlon James has written an adventure that's also an ambitious, involving read. Defying categorization and full of unforgettable characters, Black Leopard, Red Wolf explores the fundamentals of truths, the limits of power, the excesses of ambition, and our need to understand them all.

640 pages, Paperback

First published February 5, 2019

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About the author

Marlon James

36 books4,499 followers
Marlon James is a Jamaican-born writer. He has published three novels: John Crow's Devil (2005), The Book of Night Women (2009) and A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize. Now living in Minneapolis, James teaches literature at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

James was born in Kingston, Jamaica, to parents who were both in the Jamaican police: his mother (who gave him his first prose book, a collection of stories by O. Henry) became a detective and his father (from whom James took a love of Shakespeare and Coleridge) a lawyer. James is a 1991 graduate of the University of the West Indies, where he read Language and Literature. He received a master's degree in creative writing from Wilkes University (2006).

James has taught English and creative writing at Macalester College since 2007. His first novel, John Crow's Devil — which was rejected 70 times before being accepted for publication — tells the story of a biblical struggle in a remote Jamaican village in 1957. His second novel, The Book of Night Women, is about a slave woman's revolt in a Jamaican plantation in the early 19th century. His most recent novel, 2014's A Brief History of Seven Killings, explores several decades of Jamaican history and political instability through the perspectives of many narrators. It won the fiction category of the 2015 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature and the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, having been the first book by a Jamaican author ever to be shortlisted. He is the second Caribbean winner of the prize, following Trinidad-born V. S. Naipaul who won in 1971.

(from Wikipedia)

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 5,690 reviews
Profile Image for karen.
3,988 reviews170k followers
June 12, 2022

looking for great books to read during black history month...and the other eleven months? i'm going to float some of my favorites throughout the month, and i hope they will find new readers!

oooh, goodreads choice awards semifinalist for BEST FANTASY 2019! what will happen?

as you can see, i am very far behind in my reading challenge, and this book is largely to blame. i have been looking forward to this book for a whole year, and i’d planned on spending the day of its release reading all 620 pages cover to cover, with occasional breaks for restorative snacks. that was the plan.

insert laughter of god(s).

instead, this took me nearly a week to get through. it’s certainly possible for a human to read it in one very intense day, but it would not have been enjoyable, to me. this is a book that needs to steep and settle; you need to live in its world for more than one day.

it is my favorite kind of book: brutal situations, written beautifully.

it’s as violent as The Book of Night Women, as sprawling and circuitous as A Brief History of Seven Killings and someday i will read my copy of John Crow's Devil so i can provide a third simile here.

it is a dense book, and i can see it losing some readers along the way. marlon james is a phenomenal writer, but he has no interest in holding your readerly hand. keep up or don’t, it’s all the same to him. his books aren’t difficult to understand; the challenge here isn’t tied to his language or concepts, both of which are very approachable, but in your having the patience to see the big picture he’s tossed you somewhere in the middle of.

You have come for a story and I am moved to talk, so the gods have smiled on both of us.

and the imprisoned tracker will talk - telling all the stories that brought him to this place, and all the stories he heard along the way. so many stories, so many characters, so many digressions tucked within digressions, all hiding tricky sticky things whose import you won’t understand until much later.

but what of the child, whose death tracker gleefully reports on the very first page, the little boy who disappeared and whose safe return was so essential to the future of the kingdom that tracker and a ragtag band of mercenaries, shapeshifters, witches, etc. were hired to locate him and bring him back? what about him?

as tracker will accuse another character, ”Right now, your story has meat where you will not talk, bone where you do.”

james will make you work for his meat, but even his bones will satisfy you.

and so will his filthy double entendres and euphemisms, if you’re into that sort of thing. i sure am.

there’s a lot here. i’m still kind of reeling from it. i don’t have a strong epic fantasy background, and going into this - despite all the maps of imaginary realms and the large cast of characters* listed in the front matter, i felt reasonably confident, figuring - ‘how epic fantasy can this really be, coming from a man who has never written epic fantasy before? it’ll just be james trying on an epic fantasy coat to see what it’s like, yeah?’

but no, it’s the real deal. i don’t know where this beast was nestling in the folds of his historical/crime fictiony brain, but apparently there is nothing he can’t do.

don’t get me wrong, there are times i was confused as hell because he’ll mention something he hasn’t yet explained, so you think, ‘wait, did i miss something?’

don’t worry. you didn’t. it’s coming.

but it can be a lot to absorb - there are a ton of characters, most of them are unreliable narrators, many of them have special abilities or limitations, and all of them will shift relationship statuses throughout the course of the book from friends to allies to foes to lovers, or a combination plate of those aforementioned things, there are magical doors that my brain doesn’t understand, stories will be told more than once, the devil is always in the details and there are a lot of details. there is also a buffalo. and an anansi/spiderman who jizzes webbing.

but nearly all your questions will eventually be answered.

greg asked me at several points during my reading of this how it was. and every time, to his immense frustration, i would say, “it’s really good.” because, unless you are michiko kakutani, this is a hard book to talk about without sounding like you’re recounting a fever dream. her review is here.

and even though she fails to mention the jizzwebbing, it’s still a much better review than whatever it is i’m doing here.

trigger warnings: all of them. and many that never existed before this book.**

in conclusion, a tremendous achievement. i hope he’s not gonna george r r martin this trilogy, because i’m already ready to give him another week of my life, reading challenge be damned.

play me out, marlon...

Day seven, I saw that I was still a boy. There were men stronger, and women too. There were men wiser, and women too. There were men quicker, and women too. There was always someone or some two or some three who will grab me like a stick and break me, grab me like wet cloth, and wring everything out of me. And that was just the way of the world. That was the way of everybody’s world. I who thought he had his hatchets and his cunning, will one day be grabbed and tossed and thrown in with shit, and beaten and destroyed. I am the one who will need saving, and it’s not that someone will come and save me, or that nobody will, but that I will need saving, and walking forth in the world in the shape and step of a man meant nothing.

* i found it very helpful to read the character list/description at the front before starting each section.

** i take squeamish delight in my own triggers, and this book has both eye trauma AND birds, so ♥ ♥ ♥ for days


nobody loves no one

review to come


signed copy - BOOM!

today, we read.



so, when penicillin came 'round, and everyone was all stunned and grateful and, "ohhhhhh, we didn't realize how badly we needed this!" that's me. right now. wanting this with a fierceness.

come to my blog!
Profile Image for jessica.
2,555 reviews35.6k followers
March 2, 2019

to say this isnt for me is an understatement, but to claim this is a book for the masses is just a straight up lie. this has been pitched as one of the most buzz-worthy books of 2019 and i had really high hopes for this. but it takes a very particular kind of person to enjoy this story, and that person is definitely not me. i have a lot of thoughts about this, so bear with me.

honestly, this is the most pretentious book i have ever read. its so far beyond high-brow, its in an obnoxious league all on its own. james employs every literary device possible to transform his words into riddles, half-truths, and vague mysteries. as a reader, i dont mind having to sometimes work for a story. some of the best stories take patience to dissect deeper meanings. but what is really happening here is marlon james hiding behind his fancy words and complicated sentences to distract the reader from the lack of substance and development. the rhetoric in this story is dense, convoluted, and bogged down with false promises of something worth reading. the prose is evasive and meandering, dragging the reader around and around in circles without an end in sight. its honestly a disorganised and conceited mess.

also, the amount of lewdness in the book is obscene. im not easily deterred by things sexual in nature, but this is too extreme for me. a big neon flashing trigger warning is necessary for the following: rape, gang rape, pedophilia, bestiality, incest, mutilation of bodies, graphic murder, physical and emotional abuse, repetitious orgies, torture, misogyny, etc. and none of it has any relevance to the plot or progression of the storyline. i understand that mythology doesnt shy away from such brutality, but there is a difference between being aware and just being down right offensive. and this book is the latter.

such a lack of humanity ensures there is nothing redeemable or relatable about this book. had this been a simple story about a tracker and a shapeshifter in search of a missing boy, deeply rooted in african mythology and cultural folklore fantasy, i would have loved this to bits. the concept is phenomenally creative. but this book is nothing that it claims to be.

so if you want to read a book that deceivingly promises a story lush with cultural richness and imaginative fantasy, but is polluted with haughty notions of grandeur and overwhelmingly unnecessary vulgarity, then look no further because this is the book for you.

okay. rant over.

1.5 stars
Profile Image for Roxane.
Author 120 books159k followers
February 20, 2019
This book is a lot--a labyrinth within a maze, an enigma within a conundrum. Beautifully intense prose that doesn't allow for lazy reading. Immense physicality--a very embodied narrative. The length is... a lot. I don't mind a long book but if you're expecting this to be a traditional fantasy novel you're going to get smacked in the face. The plot is meandering and elusive. There are a hundred characters and settings. Epic is truly the word for this book in terms of scope, narrative, ambition, execution. Also, it is nothing like Game of Thrones. They should stop saying that shit immediately.
Profile Image for Emma.
986 reviews1,000 followers
June 17, 2019
It seems rather simplistic to say the book isn’t enjoyable, especially since I doubt that’s what the author was aiming for in the first place, but it’s certainly no easy fare either way. While it’s sold as a fantasy novel, it’s styled more in the vein of the classical poetic tradition, an inventive and challenging blend of imagination, myth, and history. Of course, the African foundation brings with it different types of stories and forms than those which underly the Greek/Roman mythic tradition but the same fundamental questioning is at its heart. Like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it’s an interconnected compilation of stories, featuring representations of violence and transformation throughout. Here, the overarching narrative is the tracking of a lost child, but this is a book of movement and journey, change and discovery. There’s so much more to it than this one tale, instead it’s a meandering exploration of an unknowable world.

And yet, it's precisely this which is its downfall. The pacing is uneven and the whole experience one of crazy disorganisation. It reads like a dreamscape, full of portent and stark brutality. The writing is often staccato, list-like, with small, well-crafted sentences that are a perfect foil for Marlon James’ ability, showcasing his striking imagery and unusual connections. Yes, it’s beautiful at times, but, for me at least, emotionless. There’s so much power in the description, so much said with so little: ‘my father was looking to win, not to play’. How much history and painful knowledge is in those few words? How much does it say about the relationship between father and son? And yet because the structure reads like this happened and this happened and this happened, I could see these moments and what they’re supposed to mean, but I couldn’t feel them. Interactions are like theatrical exchanges, more statements than conversation, everything performative and apparently profound. Characters have limited realism, some act as symbols, some merely a means of upping the violence levels still further. When read all at once, it’s an endless and eventually numbing litany of misery and horror that loses any meaning.

What’s even more distancing is the sordid humanity. The more myth I read, and I mean real myth not the sanitised Disney versions, the more it feels like an endlessly repetitive orgy of rape and violence, both human and divine. And this is no exception. The misogynistic narrator is obsessively sexual and the book is filled with references to and descriptions of abuse, rape, gang rape, borderline bestiality, and other sexual weirdness that seems to have no real relevance. Right in the opening pages Tracker taunts his jailor for wanting to have sex with a child. I don’t usually do trigger warnings but this book should have big flashing neon signs. Actually, I don’t really know how much of this stuff was in the book as a whole was but it felt like too much. Altogether tiresome and unnecessary. It takes a lot to make me flinch but the amount of times I wondered why the hell I was continuing to read this book was way more frequent than I’d usually put up with. And why? Because it’s Marlon James. Because he’s this cool-as-shit writer and I’m the one missing something. Maybe I am, but I can’t bring myself to care that much.

Would I recommend it? No. Not as a novel to sit down and lose yourself in. As an exploration of folklore and myth, sure. As an example of a particular style of writing, definitely. All I’d say is before you pick up this book, know what you’re getting into.

ARC via publisher
Profile Image for Nilufer Ozmekik.
2,303 reviews43.9k followers
August 25, 2021
In the middle of the book, I wanted to close it forever and HIT THE ROAD WITH MY JACK (I meant Jack Daniels bottle) DON’T WANT TO READ THIS NO MORE NO MORE NO MORE!

Or they tried to make me go rehab or read this book! And I said no, no, no (for both of them!!!!)

So I left my two stars, take my cannoli and take the longest swag from my Chardonnay to recover!

I’m not sure I’m reading the same book with the lovers and fans. Maybe after writing so much teasing reviews, the publishers start to pull pranks on me and I always read the worst versions of the novels (But this is not an ARC COPY! So my conspiracy theory about being the publishers’ not so favorite reader fails at this time!)

The author might be too efficient to play with the words to create a rhythmical symphony but instead of reading proper, concrete and simple dialogues, I got lost in riddles and riddles like somebody wants to tease with his obnoxious words and show off manners.
I’m fine to read GOT’s bloodier and more twisty, edgy African version with mythological, folkloric and lyrical elements. I’m also fine with the riddles (if they are not used in every freaking dialogues!!! Like “my father is not my father, but he is my father”- SO THIS PERSON IS SUFFERING FROM IDENTITY CRISIS OR HIS MOTHER KEPT LYING HIM IN HIS ALL LIFE! SHAME!)

Okay I got it, the author is brilliant and smart so I wasn’t imagine enough to decipher his words. But in my opinion those riddles were the way of his secret communication with the aliens in the space to come back with their space ship to take him back! I think everything makes sense right now!!!!

So what we have in our terrifyingly stomach lurching menu:

A pinch of homophobia, two pinches incest, pedophilia, teleiophillia, too many cups of cannibalism, rape, orgies, body mutilation and too much disgusting description of sex parts of the bodies.

I love gory, dark, bloody, twisty readings but there must be a thin line between creating something artsy, stunning, capturing and creating something nauseous, trashy, disturbing.

So writing and structure: TOO EXHAUSTING, COMPLEX for me! I had an urge to take an IQ test to check my availability to read this book. Maybe the author was TOOOO SMART so I couldn’t connect with his way of telling the story. ( Or he was so show off, pretentious which pissed me off and made me throw the book against the wall several times till I cooled down!)

I am a simple reader who expected to read a good, heart wrenching, emotional, sensational story about a missing boy with its mash up of African mythology’ s mystical, rich, original, folkloric and cultural elements.

But instead of I got something gory, graphic, pure violent, vulgar so called fantasy book which is announced as one of the most anticipated fantasy books of the year. Sorry but this is not the fantasy I expect, this is my nightmare I have to wake up from urgently!

Feel free to curse me or judge me as an oxymoron but this book failed me and I didn’t like the way it made me feel! I DON’T LIKE IT! PERIOD!
Profile Image for Tatiana.
1,404 reviews11.7k followers
Shelved as 'dnf'
December 4, 2019
I surrender.

I can handle many things as a reader:

The highly stylized, dense prose, when you don't really understand what's going on but just have to immerse yourself in a narrative until it starts making sense.

All the raping and gore and general fixation on penis as THE center of everyone's world.

Messiness of time lines.

James uses every tool in his toolbox of pretentious literary devices. If he wants to dedicate half a page to explaining that Leopard smells like ass, ok, fine, go for it (#highart). I can deal with these things, and I am willing to work hard while reading.

But this story needed at least a little bit of grounding in something real, something relatable and human.

The last straw for me was the realization that James would never allow his characters to talk to each other in any other way but riddles, faux-deep statements and stories about killings and rapes of children, women and men.

What's left to relate to then? How to connect with a story that doesn't give you anything to tether you to it?

I can’t do it.
Profile Image for Jennifer (Insert Lit Pun).
312 reviews1,980 followers
February 3, 2019
I felt oddly removed from this book at the beginning, and by the end I was crying every other page. So there's that.
Profile Image for Feyzan - The Raven Boy.
166 reviews27 followers
February 25, 2019
DNF at 40%

it's a pretty good book, I suppose. if you like them dipped in dog shit, cows piss and utterly rotten.

If i were the publisher and someone had brought this book to me, I'd have advised them to consider getting some help. I don't know what is wrong with Marlon James, but I am pretty sure something is malfunctioning in his brain. Whatever the case, I am really curious to know what was going on in his life when he decided to write this book, and what kind of head space was he in when he thought it would be a great idea to write about child molestation, rape and murder. I mean this dude has crossed all lines.

This book  comes with a trigger warning for everything known to men and more.

There is Rape on every single page.
Child abuse.
Mutilation of bodies, specially of children's.
Foul language.
Gritty murders.
General disgust arising from superfluous description of genitalia, smell of butt cracks, weird creatures that rape with their huge penises etc.

If it were a stand alone book, I might have forced myself to finish it, but it's a fucking trilogy. I can't, I just can't.

To be absolutely clear this book is disturbing and disgusting.

Now let's move on to the plot and the writing.

Plot was interesting. If it weren't filled with disgusting, gory, creepy shit, I would have enjoyed it. However, i can't say the same for the writing and the structure of the book. It felt like the book was being complicated for the sake of being complicated, like there were stories within a story, (inception level shit) and characters that only talked to each other in riddles.

Almost nothing was grounded in reality. It's was excruciating and painful to read because there was nothing I could relate to.

Edit: After recieving hate on my initial review, I decided to add this note to clarify myself.

I know it's an oxymoron to use fantasy and reality in the same sentence, I am not an idiot to not see that. My point is that almost all fantasy books have some real elements, either in the world building or in the characters, to make readers feel at home. However, this book felt like a course in quantum physics. I couldn't feel anything for anything and I mostly blame the superfluous writing for it. A simpler writing style and plot structure would have made a great difference.

PS: My negative opnion is like a grain of salt in the sea of positive reviews so it shouldn't matter what i think about this book. You are allowed to love this book just as I am allowed not to. Take a chill pill and move on. No need to send hateful comments and death threats.

Things I liked about this book:

1. Plot.
So the plot was alot like NoTW and GoT, and it was the main reason I kept pushing myself to read it but the structure and writing was way too complex for me to fully immerse into it.  I think a TV or movie adaptation would be a better way to consume this story.

2. African myths.
Lets be honest the only reason I picked this book was the fact that it was based around African myths and mythical creatures. I was super excited and went into it with high expectations, which also played a role in intensifying my disappointment for the book. But I really enjoyed the mythical aspect of the book and I really want to learn more about these myths and creatures.

3. Concept.
OK so the concept, as explained by the Marlon James himself,  seemed pretty unique and intriguing.  The whole idea of telling the same story from three different perspectives is bloody genius, in my opnion. However, the execution was bad or you can say it wasn't for me.

Am I curious to know the ending?
- Yes, I am.
Will continue reading?
- No, I'll watch the movie instead.
Will I recommend this book?
- I won't. But if you are into dark, gritty, complex books then you can give it a shot. I recommend you to read a few pages (if possible) before purchasing the book to familiarize yourself with the writing style, 'cos this shit ain't for everyone.
June 2, 2019
Eh, is this book for serious? Was everyone reading some book other than the one I did?

This is supposed to be some kind of African Game of Thrones. At least it's often hyped as such.
Instead, I got something like an obscene cross between:
~ the Aboriginal myths of the African tribes,
~ blatant YA intermixed with hopelessly flat adult situations seemingly happening on each page,
- pointlessly gorish description of a bunch of adventures happening all over the place,
~ writings of some emigree who hasn't yet mastered his English well,
~ badly stylized musings of a self-edu philosopher,
- there's even dendrophilia thrown in for good measure ...
I could love everything of the above but the resulting mix of it all and something else is too niche.

The plot is also very... Tarzanesque? Burroughsesque? Whatever? Kohl dust, kid prostitutes and children mingi and generally, pleasure mongers, mountains and winds and waves and lakes and storms, dhows, medicine women, griots, yeruwolos, Ipundulu, Adze, Eloko, Itaki, Omoluzu, cages, violence, people falling from trees & houses, cursed kings, ghommids, antiwitches, bush fairies, - this is a kaleidoscope of randomness. An original kaleidoscope, I give it that.

It even managed to design and incorporate the type of perfect recall that I would have liked to skip (for the 1st time since ever): Q: the perfect recall of the smell in the crack of a man’s buttocks (c). I kid you not!

Still... what exactly was it all supposed to congeal into?

It feels as if the author took the words of one of the characters way too seriously and followed them through to the end: Q: I have no reason for anything. (c) You know what, pal? I noticed. And I don't care about such attitude, since I actually like my books to be able to demonstrate at least a pinch of reason.

Plus, all the references to... child sex trade??? Whoa?
The girl left the child with Miss Wadada, who looked at his skin and bathed him every quartermoon in cream and sheep butter. She forbade him to do any work so that his muscles would stay thin, his cheeks high and hips much wider than his waist. Miss Wadada made him the most exquisite of all creatures, who had all the best stories of all the worst people, but preferred that you fucked each tale out and paid him a fee on top of Miss Wadada’s for being the best information hound in all Kongor. (c)
Besides, what man wants to enter a room where he can smell the man who just left? (c)

Voyeurism & a boy masturbating another boy to a nice view of adults going at it:
The woman hopped up and down, jiggled, whispered, panted, bawled, grunted, screamed, squeezed her own breast, opened and closed herself. The moonlight boy had moved his hand between my legs, pulling my skin back and forth to match her up and down. (c)

Plain crude, even though entertaining:
Q: “A thousand fucks—”
“I have long passed a thousand fucks. (c)
She good with the fucky-fucky, but gods alive, she can’t cook. Can’t cook a shit (c)

Flatly violent:
I chopped his hand off. (c)
I went over and pulled the ax out of her head. (c)

Blink three time and peppered afterbirth is ready. You want a piece, my friend? It just come out of a woman from the Buju-Buju. (c)
The boy cut a piece of the afterbirth with his knife and shoved it in his mouth. (c) Tasty, huh?

Sex slavery:
The smile on her face said all. She knew he would kill her. Better to be with the ancestors than to live bonded to somebody else, who might be kind, who might be cruel, who might even make you master to many slaves of your own, but was still master over you. (c)

Some quotes are nice-ish:
When darkness falls, one embraces one’s enemy. (c)
Not everything the eye sees should be spoken by the mouth. (c)

... which is not enough to atone for the atrocity which is this plot rambling on and on nonsensically:

“Did you translate for me or him?”
“You betray what you fight so long for?” Sogolon said.
“Look at you, Moon Witch. You don’t even look three hundred years old. But then, gunnugun ki ku lewe. How did you survive going back through that door?”
“You betraying that what you long fight for,” she said again.
“You talking to me or the Leopard?” I asked. (c) Yes, it's a dialogue. Makes lot of sense? Not to me.
“He dies tonight,” the Aesi said.
“He dies from my ax,” I said.
“No,” Sogolon said.
“A lie, a lie, a lie ha ha ha,” the boy said again.
“A lie, a lie, a lie ha ha ha,” Nyka said. (c) Reads mentally disabled, frankly.
Look how that thrills you. Look at you.
I will give you a story.
It begins with a Leopard.
And a witch.
Grand Inquisitor.
Fetish priest.
No, you will not call for the guards.
My mouth might say too much before they club it shut.
Regard yourself. A man with two hundred cows who delights in a patch of boy skin and the koo of a girl who should be no man’s woman. (c) Any sense?
Ask them why your South has not been winning this war, but neither the North.
The child is dead. There is nothing else to know. Otherwise, ask the child.
Oh you have nothing left to ask? Is this where we part?
What is this? Who comes in this room?
No, I do not know this man. I have never seen his back or his face.
Don’t ask me if I recognize you. I do not know you.
And you, inquisitor, you give him a seat. Yes, I can see he is a griot. Do you think he brought the kora to sell it? Why would this be the time for praise song?
It is a griot with a song about me.
There are no songs about me.
Yes, I know what I said before, I was the one who said it. (c) Yes, it's a piece of text. It's probably supposed to mean something.
I took the holster off my back, pulled my belt, and stepped out of my tunic and loincloth. I started walking north, following that star to the right of the moon. He came and went quick, like an afterthought, he did. The Aesi. He appeared in that way, as if he was always here, and left in that way, as if he never was. The hyenas would make use of the Leopard. It was the way of the bush, and it would have been what he wanted.
Maybe this was the part where men with smarter heads and bigger hearts than mine looked at how the crocodile ate the moon, and how the world spins around the gods of sky, especially the gone sun god, regardless of what men and women do in their lands. And maybe from that came some wisdom, or something that sounded like it. But all I wanted to do was walk, not to anything, not from anything, just away. From behind me I heard, “Give me drink! Give me drink!” (c) What the effing?
You are the last of your kind, Nyka. One the Ipundulu chose to change rather than kill. Such honor he saves for those he enslaves and those he has fucked, so which are you?”
“Ipundulu can only be a man, no woman can be Ipundulu.”
“And only a body possessed by his lightning blood can be Ipundulu.”
“I told you. Ipundulu can only be a man. No woman can be Ipundulu.”
“That is not the part I asked you.”
“The last man he bit but did not kill, that man becomes the next Ipundulu, unless crossed by a mother witch, and he has no mother.” (c) I can't help thinking that now I know a lot more about Ipundulu than I might have ever wanted to.
That light, you see it and you want it—not light from the sun, or from the thunder god in the night sky, but light with no blemish, light in a boy who has no knowledge of women, a girl you bought for marriage, not because you need a wife, for you have two hundred cows, but a wife you can tear open, because you search for it in holes, black holes, wet holes, undergrown holes for the light that vampires look for, and you will have it, you will dress it up in ceremony, circumcision for the boy, consummation for the girl, and when they shed blood, and spit, and sperm and piss you leave it all on your skin, to go to the iroko tree and use any hole you find. (c) This is 1 (one) sentence. It has everything crammed into it: triggers, thunder god, questionable sexual practices, vampires, cows, ECOSEXUALITY? (maybe dendrophilia?)??? ...

I just think it's off and not in a good way. Not my cup of cow blood, Omoluzu piss, hallucinogenic tea or whatever it is these 'heroes' could be bothered to offer the reader!
Profile Image for Michael.
655 reviews964 followers
May 21, 2019
I read and reviewed this book for Lambda Literary, where my full review can be found; my thoughts also can be found on my blog.

Full of violence, suspense, and mystery, Black Leopard, Red Wolf charts the adventures of an unforgettable pair of mercenaries as they hunt for a lost boy. Taking place in a fictional continent based on Iron Age Africa, the colossal, six-part tale hybridizes fantasy, historical fiction, and epic. In terse but intricately constructed prose, Tracker, or “Red Wolf,” recounts not just his quest to find the lost boy but also his own coming of age, lineage, romances, and more. The novel reads as a collection of interlocked stories set in a civilization in crisis, populated by troubled mercenaries, unforgiving elites, and fantastical creatures; as expansive as the plot is, it centers on the intimate bond between the two eponymous Black heroes, Red Wolf and Black Leopard, as they struggle to survive, communicate, and love in an era beset by armed conflict and social tension. The novel is inexpressibly compelling, and the trilogy it begins seems sure to become a genre-bending classic.
Profile Image for Meike.
1,589 reviews2,810 followers
July 31, 2023
Finalist for the National Book Award 2019
Fuck the gods!, as the protagonist of this epic would put it, this clearly is a 5-star-read, and I don't even like fantasy! James takes his readers to an ancient, otherwordly Africa, where themes of Greek and African mythology merge into a sprawling tale about the battles between different tribes and kingdoms, all of them with their own beliefs, powers, and cultures. We join our narrator Tracker, who possesses the gift of a heightened sense of smell, in the quest for a young boy -but the first sentences already give away the ending: "The child is dead. There is nothing left to know." The focus of this novel is on searching, and in more than one way.

In the central storyline of the book, Tracker joins a gang of characters who aim to find the mysterious boy for their powerful client - but at that point, they don't know who the boy really is and what they are getting themselves into. Among this illustrous group are a witch, a killer with superhuman strength, a magical buffalo, and of course Tracker's lover, the shape-shifting Leopard (and yes, Red Wolf is Tracker himself, but you have to find out why by reading the novel! :-)). The group roams the lands in search of the boy, encountering all kinds of people and creatures along the way.

Ultimately, angry and sensitive Tracker, who has no family, is searching for purpose, for meaning. He himself seems to be unsure whether he is good or even striving for what's good, but he clearly perceives the vacuousness in the hate and violence around him. He is lost and trying to be found - but by what? My guess is that this question may be central to the whole Dark Star Trilogy.

Another captivating aspect of the book is the way James adds more and more stories to that of Tracker: There are no shifting points of view, rather, other perspectives are revealed through storytelling. Yes, there are numerous stories the characters tell each other, thus creating a written text that heavily relies on oral traditions. The people choose to reveal themselves to Tracker, and often, they prove to be unreliable narrators, omitting important details or giving false Information. This narrative technique adds a lot of suspense to the overall story and depth to the characters.

On top of that, James shines with his inventive language - he manages to give his characters unique voices that do not only convey thoughts and information, but reflect the spirits of the speakers. In fact, I would claim that it's the characters who make this story so addictive: Sure, the chase for the boy is suspenseful and the narrative arc is very smart, but the fascinating, often contradictory personalities of Tracker, Leopard, Sadogo and the others are what glues the reader to this text.

Asked when the next installment of the trilogy will be published, James answered: "Well, my publisher thinks in two years." I really hope it won't take longer! :-)
Profile Image for Spencer Orey.
557 reviews140 followers
February 21, 2019
Imagine the X-Men in a fantastical ancient Africa, on a wild roadtrip through nonstop magical terrors.

It started a bit slow for me, but by 200 pages in, I was hooked. I'll be thinking about this one for a long time. Can't wait for the sequels and the movie.

The violence in this book (especially the ceaseless sexual violence) can be very challenging and disturbing, but I think it makes a strong point that written violence should feel disturbing. It shouldn't be easy to gloss over the battles. Violence shouldn't ever feel anodyne. But it can make for very tough reading at parts.

There's a lot to think about here with the ways that histories of Africa and African peoples, tropes, and cultures from different parts of the content are freely mixed. It's worth talking about when and how that might be problematic, but I'm going to stay away from all that here because the end result was such an incredible world. I hope this book inspires people to read more pre-colonial African history and learn about the diversity in the continent today, especially how different the regions are.

The book is amazing overall. Go read it.
Profile Image for Lori.
308 reviews99 followers
May 4, 2019
Blood, Sex and Magic
If you’re not put off by the violence and gross bits, then it’s a perfectly normal epic quest adventure.


The plot is like a wild run amuck-garden full of enchantment and evil. The writing is lush almost to the point texture or smell. Equally true for the sensual application of clay as for the torture by those hyena-bitches.

The narrative fragments in places, but some people like it when the camera shakes. Besides, the fellows are cute with their jealous fight and the buffalo is as smart as Lassie.
Profile Image for Daniel B..
Author 3 books32.5k followers
March 1, 2019
I have so many feelings about this one. Can't really see myself giving it a simple 1-5 rating. Needs a heck of a lot of discussion.
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,049 reviews48.7k followers
January 28, 2019
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. When the novel opens, Tracker is rotting in a dungeon where he recently stabbed, crushed and blinded his five cellmates. They had it coming — or most of them did — and in any case, it’s a perfect introduction to. . . .

To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:
Profile Image for Perry.
632 reviews532 followers
January 9, 2022
Not only do I not wanna finish this novel. I don't even wanna wanna.

I was so looking forward to the experience. I sang the praises of Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings. I refuse to suffer another 400 pages after surviving 300 pages, nearly half a doorstopper ravaged by the most, and most graphic of, gratuitous anal rapes/assaults of men, women, boys and beasts that have ever been rammed into a few hundred pages of literary fiction.

Mayhaps, this the way of this fantasy world, but I, a jujube warrior, choose to evade its torture.
Profile Image for Marchpane.
296 reviews2,166 followers
February 15, 2019
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is an epic sword-and-sorcery fantasy novel from Booker Prize-winning author Marlon James. This is not literary fiction dressed up in genre clothing! What it is: fantasy at its freshest and most exciting, deeply rooted in African history and myth.

Lone wolf Tracker and a rag tag bunch of shapeshifters, witches and mercenaries reluctantly team up to locate a missing child, encountering along the way all manner of winged demons, evil spirits, slavers, white scientists, and warring royals. Their quest takes them all over a spectacularly imagined fantasy world, where all is not what it seems. It’s a dark, dizzying, vibrant, surreal immersion into African folklore; a grotesquery of nightmares.

The book is structured as a picaresque which reduced to its most simplistic terms consists of: Tracker and his band of travellers arrive in location – describe location’s physical features, politics, culture – encounter some bad guys – describe bad guys’ physical features, magic powers, motivations – BADASS ACTION SEQUENCE – and repeat. Obviously, it’s much more sophisticated than that, but you get the idea. It's an odyssey. The cycle occurs more times than is strictly necessary for the overarching narrative to unfurl, but really this is the kind of book that’s about the journey more than the destination. You’re not just reading to find out how it ends (though there is that too) but for everything that happens along the way; for the incredible, vivid world that is wrought; for the characters and creatures that inhabit it. In this way, it is much closer to older storytelling forms - oral tradition, ancient folktales and myths - than to the three-act structure of most contemporary novels.

Potential criticisms of Black Leopard, Red Wolf – side characters are underdeveloped, political machinations are both murky and simplistic – are mitigated by the fact that this seems to be all part of James’s master plan for the trilogy and will be redressed in parts 2 & 3. Meanwhile, this book manages to subvert almost every fantasy trope. Tracker himself is less ‘hero on noble quest’ and more like a world-weary PI from a hard-boiled noir, albeit one with enhanced abilities. From there, his character develops in fascinating and heartbreaking ways.

The focus on one character means that the book sustains much the same intensity and tone throughout its 600-plus pages. There aren’t the usual narrative tricks to propel you along, and we know from the beginning that Tracker at least survives to tell his tale. So it’s best to sink into the story, just let it unfold the way Tracker wants to tell it, and trust that James is in total control of his vision. Tracker has a way of skipping ahead, then circling back; of telling tales within tales, until you’re thoroughly disoriented and have forgotten how many levels deep into story-inception you are. But he also provides helpful recaps along the way, invaluable for keeping the threads straight in a book this long.

It’s interesting that James has chosen to give us only Tracker’s slippery first person POV here, rather than alternating POVs of different characters. We know from interviews that the trilogy will include other voices and perspectives, but we’re made to wait for them. Is Tracker telling the truth? Everything we think we know from Black Leopard, Red Wolf can be turned on its head in book 2 and that’s sooo exciting. I just hope he writes fast!
Profile Image for Chris Morgan.
11 reviews8 followers
February 10, 2019
I really, really, really wanted to like this. At first I was deeply engrossed, but within the span of fifty pages, I had all but zoned out. The stream-of-consciousness style of writing with an overuse of pronouns over names, stop-start stacatto style sentences and abundance of coarse sex just rubbed me wrong. The setting is rich, but almost glossed over. Characters are archetypal and dialogue is often a tedious back and forth of riddles where nothing makes sense. James frequently uses peusdo-deepness for borderline nonsense - "My father is not my father, but he is my father" or "The trees were not trees, but they were trees", causing readers of "literatary" figures to gather round for a collective circle-jerk over the "boldness" and "voice" James employs. If you're aiming for incoherence, praise be. If you came seeking the author's own misnomer marketing of "the African Game of Thrones", expect confusion, disappointment and pretense. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is like literary modern art; everyone pretends to understand and indulges the collective dillusion, because one feels that not doing so would be impolite. I am desperately seeking strong African-themed fantasy, a much under-represented subgenre, but this is decidedly not it.
Profile Image for Alex.
1,419 reviews4,486 followers
March 18, 2019
My mom got me a book of African folklore when I was a kid but she didn’t check it out very carefully, and the end of the story is that it was full of dicks. Fuuullllll of dicks. I learned a lot from that book. One guy threshes grain with his dick. The trickster Eshu-Elegba is gender-fluid with a ten-foot dick.

“It was a very sensual and sensory world," says Marlon James, who’s woven African folktales - their tricksters and their shape-changing and their dicks - into this magisterial first chapter in the African Lord of the Rings. Or, people are calling it the African Game of Thrones because it’s cooler to say that, and also because there’s a lot of violence, and that’s fine too. James has mixed a lot of things up in his cauldron here. It’s definitely fantasy, anyway. You have your epic journey, your band of adventurers. There are memorable villains: the ceiling-walking omoluzu reminded me of dementors. There are magical settings: the Darklands are like Mirkwood.

James, the lauded author of 2015’s Brief History of Seven Killings, has written a fantasy epic that stands out because it’s African. Also because it’s full of dicks, and I mean that in a gay way because it is very gay, and between that and our hero’s signature catch phrase, “Fuck the gods!" which he says on nearly every page, half the fun of this book is imagining some Midwestern housewife picking this up by accident and her hair going gray overnight like a Victorian widow. I don’t know if the gay African fantasy market is underserved - seriously, I have no idea - but here you go, dudes.

Much of the African stuff is taken directly from folklore. Asanbonsam, a pink-skinned cannibal, is real. So are the Eloko (grass trolls) and the Impundulu (lightning vampire). James has tapped a rich vein.

It’s a little hard to keep track of the plot sometimes? James is one of these authors who think it’s tacky to just tell you what’s happening, they have to fancy it all up with words and whatever. It’s not my favorite thing. They’re looking for a kid and I don’t honestly care who he is, it’s a MacGuffin, let’s get on with the weird fights.

But the imagination is gripping enough to make up for it, and I think this will become a fantasy classic. There’s a whole treehouse city, and wait til you hear how it’s powered! (It’s awful.) Michael B. Jordan bought the rights to it, like, instantly, so you can expect to see that soon. It’s got nifty magic, exciting adventures, and memorable characters. And it’s full of dicks.
Profile Image for PorshaJo.
466 reviews672 followers
February 17, 2019
OK, I'm done with this one. I tried. Adding to my DNF pile, not to be revisited. I tried the audio. I love accents and this one was a heavy accent that required a lot of concentration on my part...and constant rewinding. I also had the print which I frequently had to use when I was confused. But it seemed I was more confused reading this one than I wanted to be. It's also very, very graphic. I'm not a prude but it just seemed to me a lot was unnecessary. I was so excited for this one but I've made myself a rule....don't spend your time on reading books you don't like.
Profile Image for BookOfCinz.
1,422 reviews2,546 followers
November 17, 2020
“Black Leopard, Red Wolf” by Marlon James is the first book on the Dark Star Trilogy. This trilogy has already been dubbed in the publishing world as “the African Game of Thrones” and I will tell you why soon. The publication date for this is January 2019 but thanks to those amazing people over at Riverhead Books I get an early peek into this enthralling tale.

We meet the main character Tracker, a hunter who is know for his nose- once he catches the scent of a person he cannot let it go until that person is found, dead or alive. It is because of this specific skill Tracker is commissioned to look for a boy who disappeared under very mysterious circumstances three years ago. Tracker finds out he is not the only person looking for the boy, and the search turns into a team effort, but not everyone on the team can be trusted. The group that accompanies Tracker on his search is filled with mysterious characters all with secrets and hidden agendas.

Tracker and his team move from one city to a next, through enchanted forests and magical doors. Their journey is filled with curveballs and mythical creature intent on killing them. The group ends up getting divided, mistrust surrounds them, and Tracker cannot help but question why he decided to find this boy and who he can trust to help him complete his mission.

To be fair, it took awhile for me to get into the book but after the first 70 pages it was smooth sailing. I think with the numerous characters and interwoven storylines of each character is becomes a bit hard to keep track of who is who. In true Marlon James’ fashion the book is filled with very graphic scenes both sexually and in the description of how persons died. If you can push through these scenes without your stomach turning, then you are good to go.

Honestly, Marlon James did not disappoint with his first installation of the Dark Star Trilogy. I was kept guessing the entire time. I cannot wait for the next installation in this series. I am hoping this series makes it to the big screen, I want to see these characters come to life. This is a must read for me!

Full review on www.bookofcinz.com
Profile Image for Eric Anderson.
686 reviews3,395 followers
February 12, 2019
You can watch my over-excited fangirl video review here!

What a wholly-immersive wild adventure this novel is! Going into it I knew Marlon James has a talent for writing intricate sweeping tales from having read his previous novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings". That book greatly enhanced his international prominence having won the Booker Prize in 2015. That same year I was one of the judges of The Green Carnation Prize and we also selected his novel as a winner - not just for the magnificence of his storytelling but the meaningful inclusion of gay characters and gay sex in this Jamaican story about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley and drug trafficking.

“Black Leopard, Red Wolf” is very different from that previous book yet still retains James’ unique style, sensibility and alluring mischievousness. Touted as an ‘African Game of Thrones’, it describes a fantastical medieval adventure involving warring kingdoms, witches, giants, shape-shifters and a quest for a missing child. But it’s all firmly rooted in African mythology, language and history. There have been significant examples recently of storytelling whose narratives aren’t wholly based in an Anglo-Saxon past but draw instead upon traditions in African culture. From Tomi Adeyemi’s “Children of Blood and Bone” to Akwaeke Emezi’s “Freshwater” to the phenomenally successful film Black Panther, these tales insist upon the presence of African lore and pay respect to its cultural history whose influence has largely been absent from Western narratives. Marlon James does the same while creating a riveting journey that has all the marks of a fantasy novel but also explores sophisticated ideas about the meaning of storytelling and explicitly adult themes about ambition, relationships, sex and violence.

Read my full review of Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James on LonesomeReader
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,114 followers
March 25, 2019
This may be an unpopular opinion.

After reading glowing reviews of this book and listening to several passionate reviews with the author about his research and intentions, I was excited to read this book. It was quite a slog for me but I kept coming back to it to try to see what others were seeing.

Around halfway, the parts did coalesce and I felt I could finally sink into the story, but it also grew in violence at this point. So I take issue with two major components - this reads like a mind-dump first draft and I found there to be way too much detail even for an epic fantasy. Less is more! Revision is your friend! Along the same vein, the dialogue was often redundant and slowed the pacing down (I really noticed this at the end when I needed it to wrap up already.)

Part of the praise for the novel is that it has gay characters and is based in mythologies and folklore of the African continent, which is wonderful and I would like to see more of this. Diversity and representation matter. But the content also includes horrifying rape scenes and child abuse that are made more awful because the children are made to survive through magic. Am I just the wrong audience for epic fantasy? It's possible. But I did not feel my time was justified for pushing through to the end.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. I really did read the entire thing before coming to this conclusion.
Profile Image for Thomas Wagner.
142 reviews930 followers
February 20, 2022
[4.5*] Even if it weren’t riding a wave of pre-release hype based on its author’s reputation as a winner of the Man Booker Prize, Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf would be a landmark epic fantasy. More than perhaps any recent work in the field since Steven Erikson wrapped the Malazan Book of the Fallen, this is a story that takes the “epic” aspect of the genre seriously and takes a running jump into the deep end with both feet.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf isn’t interested in any rules but its own, carving its own niche within the genre. It has a way of feeling both old and new at the same time. You haven’t experienced any book quite like this before. Yet it feels legitimately ancient, as if it carries the weight of 4,000 years of legend. Whatever expectations you might be bringing to the story — including the simplistic idea that this is an “African Game of Thrones” — should be thrown out right now.

I won’t even begin to guess what James’s following among literary fiction fans will think of this fever dream of a novel. For fantasy readers, I can point to a few antecedents that may help get the water warm. Readers of N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy will have experienced the kind of immersive, often sensually overwhelming worldbuilding James offers, as well as a story that plays out on an enormous canvas while drawing its readers in emotionally with intimate attention to character relationships, especially among families, as well as the trauma of feeling uprooted and displaced. If you’ve read Kai Ashante Wilson, then you’ll be ready for this book’s amped-up homoeroticism. Finally, readers who go way back will pick out some possible influence from Charles Saunders, a mostly-forgotten writer from the 1970s who created Imaro, a series of stories that were basically Black Conan, and which, like this book, took place in a richly imagined mythic Africa unmarred by Western colonialism.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is yet very much its own animal, a book that has no interest in offering you comfort or safe harbor as it propels you through a dense, often bewildering maze of an adventure. But like any maze... (continued...)
Profile Image for K.J. Charles.
Author 59 books8,608 followers
March 14, 2019
DNF at 88%, which is to say after nearly 550pp.

There is so much amazing about this book. African inspired fantasy, huge sense of culture, intriguing cast of characters, lots of really chewy stuff to think about, lovely use of language, and some really striking ideas and turns of phrase (the human-centipedy equivalent of what Europeans would call 'black magic' is 'white science'). It is horrifically violent, including much on page gore, slavery, rape and child abuse of the most horrifying sort, but there is a sort of fable/dreamscape feel to it that makes it just about bearable. Huge amounts of misogyny in both the society and the narrator, but this is increasingly challenged throughout the book in what's clearly shown to be a steep learning curve. Queer characters (all cis men) front and centre, though in a very homophobic gender-essentialist world (which the author is using absolutely deliberately--this is not a lazy 'that's just how the world is' set-up).

But it's way too long. The plot doesn't even start till about 30%, the journey scenes are meandering, the conversations repetitive to the point of screaming, the motion of the story goes in long slow loops that are constantly interrupted by other stories and stories within stories. Clearly this is a deliberate style to give the sense of an oral fable or indeed a dream. But also--and again intentionally--our narrator is this deeply damaged, loveless, affectless individual who doesn't like engaging with people or want to reveal his feelings. That keeps the reader at arms length throughout the book--making the brutality more bearable, but unquestionably meaning it's hard to care, or to get to know the other characters as seen through his eyes. That combines with the dreamscape sense to make it very hard for me at least to engage emotionally with the book at all.

The narrator starts to change in the last third, as we see him falling in love and the hard shell breaking. This is really interesting as we suddenly get a more descriptive sense of the world, a far stronger impression of the other characters and of the narrator's inner life. Loved that part. And then the narrative jumps to someone else giving a precis of how and then we're suddenly several years later when everything has gone to shit again, and I'm afraid that was just one narrative shift too many for me.

It is quite possible I'm trying to impose my sense of how a story should be told onto this book rather than appreciating it for what it is. It is also possible that I'd have more inclination to spend another few hours in this world if I didn't find the extreme violence so ghastly. YMMV; I just can't.
Profile Image for Kyle.
377 reviews557 followers
March 2, 2019
I don’t even know where to begin...

Trigger Warnings: EVERYTHING AND ANYTHING YOU CAN THINK OF... and then some!

(Seriously, take my review with a grain of salt— I like obscene and weird shit, and that’s certainly not the majority’s cup o’ tea. I like a multi-layered story that may seem pretentious on the surface, but deeply nuanced under the grimy film on top.)

*What follows is not a coherent review, but just tidbits I jotted down while reading:
-The first 100 pages were like a very long Prologue. The main story doesn’t really kick in until then.
-Exhaustively researched mythology and folklore from the entire African continent.
-Marlon James has literally made an EPIC fantasy, heavily influenced by Africa, it’s various countries, cultures, peoples, creatures, and customs.
-Surrealism, sex, horror, love, religion, sex, absurdity, violence, gore, sex, magic, wonderment, evil, more sex.
-It’s so fucking weird, I love it!
-This book is bursting with stories— it starts with a tale being told to the “Inquisitor”, and then branches into stories stacked upon stories like a literary tower; and more stories nesting inside other stories like a freakish matryoshka. There is a LOT to take in, with more characters, names, places, and history to remember if not giving your complete attention. It can become overwhelming if you let it, but after a while of reading consistently and thoroughly, I managed alright. The map and list of characters at the beginning of the novel help ease a bit of the confusion, also.
-It gets exponentially more mystifying and confounding (and remains so, in all honestly), but the overall plot is strong, full of mystery, intrigue, and dramatic absurdity, and I was wholly invested in it. It’s richly layered in terms of how storytelling is utilized, but also in language and dialogue. Every character is an unreliable narrator, and with the heavy amounts of double-speak going on, my brain was getting whiplash.
-There is an applaudable level of diversity here— LGBTQ, race (almost every character represented is dark-skinned: African, Middle Eastern (?), South Asian (?)), many strong, yet flawed, female characters.
-Come the end, I had laughed, I had cried, I had cringed, I had cringed some more, but ultimately I was left totally and completely lost... and I am so goddamn ready for MORE!!!
Profile Image for Renee Godding.
640 reviews634 followers
June 19, 2020
“Not everything the eye sees should be spoken by the mouth.”
- Quote that pretty much describes my feelings about ¾ of this book

It’s not often that I rate or review a book that I technically haven’t read front to back. Then again, it’s not often either that I deeply and utterly hate a book as much as I did Black Leopard, Red Wolf.
I wanted to DNF this from around page 20, but I read almost 400 pages until I allowed myself to skim the rest, so I feel I’ve read enough to form my opinion on it. Many of my friends have given this 5-stars, but unfortunately this book was NOT for me, and went straight from my “most-anticipated-of-2019” to my “worst-reading-experiences-of-all-time”-list.

Let me start of by saying: there was a reason I was anticipating this novel, and some of that anticipation was fulfilled. This is indeed a GoT-like epic fantasy with a dark and gritty, elaborate world. It has its roots in African mythology, which was very awesome indeed, and the plot was actually intriguing to me. HOWEVER:

Allow me to list my reasons for strongly disliking this novel.
Beware very minor spoilers:
1. The protagonist is an absolute rotten-to-the-core asshole

The story sets him up to be basically Geralt from the Witcher: a mercenary with a *distinct* personality and a unique skillset, sent off to solve other peoples problems for payment. Except that following Tracker is not like following Geralt, who is gruff but cynically charming in his own way. Following Tracker is more like watching one of those “The Witcher Playthrough, but I go on a killing spree for no reason”-video’s on Youtube. “Oh and not to mention, I rape and torture everybody as well…”
If that wasn’t enough reason to hate the main character: he is misogynistic, frighteningly homophobic, immature and completely and utterly obsessed with sex.
Now I’m not someone who rates a book 1-star, just because I hate the main character. Yet if you make it to the point where being inside the characters head makes the reading-experience feel like literal torture to the reader: you’re going to get points knocked off my rating.

No, seriously. Think of any disgusting thing off the top of your head, and it’s probably in here somewhere, described in utter revolting detail. Sex. Rape. Gore. More rape. Animal-abuse/Bestiality. Murder. Mutilation and desecration of bodies. Rape of children…
Seriously: the list goes on and on. I consider myself to have a fairly okay tolerance to this sort of thing, even though I don’t enjoy it. For God’s sake Marlon James, I’m a medical intern with a strong stomach, and yet you somehow manage to describe wounds and genitalia in a way that actually grosses me out more than actually having to stick my hands into those of real patients. Seriously, that almost merits a congratulation.
The worst part is that none of it felt like it was necessary for the plot, or for the message the author wanted to bring across. To me, it felt like it was more for the sake of sensationalism and to “gross-out” the reader. I get wanting to provoke an emotion in a reader, but torture-porn is about the most cheap and vulgar way to do that in my opinion.

3. Unbalanced writing style
This is sold as “literary fantasy”, so I can’t review this without mentioning the “literary” part about it. Marlon James sure makes an effort to make some sentences… some hella long sentences… with seemingly as many words in them as possible. Until al of a sudden he doesn’t anymore and we are left with a very simplistic, stocky style that ties us over until the next “literary outburst”. It’s basic writing with occasional pretentious purple prose, and it honestly feels all over the place.
Not to mention: if you’re trying to make a literary effort, it doesn’t help to interrupt your flowery, meandering language every 6 sentences with some nice talk of shit, cum, or how the shape of a mountain reminds you of a woman’s labia…
Call me a prude, but I don’t think it’s the best match.

4. Pacing issues
After (skimming through) the second half, I see a big break in style and pacing between start and finish. The first half could have been, not even halved but quartered. Nothing of great importance to the plot happens during the first 200+ pages, other than establishing the character as an ass. I thing the end is honestly better, but I have to say that I don’t think slugging though the rest of this disturbing and vulgar mess of a start was worth it for me.

Maybe I’m just a feeble-hearted weakling who can’t appreciate the beauty of a masterfully written dark fantasy. I don’t rule it out.
If you loved this book: power to you! I’m happy for you. That doesn’t take away that I hated my experience with this, and I won’t be recommending this to my friends.
Profile Image for Mel (Epic Reading).
917 reviews283 followers
June 24, 2019
Brilliant, disturbing, intense, elaborate and ingenious are all words I'd use to describe Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Marlon James has taken the epic fantasy genre to a new level and in a different direction that feels uniquely his own. The setting is rich with African influences, supernatural beings like I've never seen/heard of before, and a brutality that reflects what life would really be like in a society filled with shape shifters, witches, demons, zombies, vampires and so much more. Many of these creatures are called different things and it was engrossing to learn about new legends, myth and lore that James borrows from.
While this book dragged at times and had me flipping backwards to re-read sections (so many names!), and briefly hit/passed my 'ick' gore threshold; Black Leopard, Red Wolf is already on my favourites shelf and I cannot wait to read this dense masterpiece again, never mind the rest of the series.
So let's get into the details of this 600+ page monster...

Please note: that the quotes below are EXACTLY as written in the published book. I did not make any grammar or spelling mistakes. Instead this is the style of certain characters speech.

Characters & Lead Narrative
Our lead man is Tracker. We experience the entire story via his narrative. He is actually telling the story to a inquisitor (like Interview with the Vampire) after the events have transpired. So you can be reassured from page 1 that he at least lives through everything that transpires (as it's all history to him). Tracker has no 'real' name but is known far and wide as 'the man with the nose' of a wolf. Able to distinctly smell people, items, excrement, really anything at any given time in any place he is present at. While we see Tracker on his own and with a single companion at times the bulk of the story is him and a host of characters. Most aren't assembled until we hit Chapter 10 (just past 200 pages). This unlikely group of travelers is called a fellowship at one point. Thanks for the direct Lord of the Rings LotR) reference James! For the avid reader there are at least three more references I picked up on through the course of the book that are clear LotR references.
Each of our characters in the group is representative of a traditional archetype with a twist. We have the gentle but deadly strong giant in our Ogo. An unrelentingly harsh woman in the Moon Witch. A man who is more animal than human in the Leopard. The prefect soldier who is so in love he can't see anything beyond his desired. And mercenaries that remind us all that eventually every society is the same; it's all about the money (insert Han Solo reference here). Oh, and did I mention a couple of them are former lovers or bed partners with Tracker? This makes for some fun exchanges between our manly men.
The non-fellowship characters are unique but also archetypes in their own way. Vampires/zombies with a twist:
"the living dead with lightning running through they body where blood used to run"
A water being that loves to trick everyone. An assassin who can control people's minds (scary right?!). And just in case that wasn't enough to try and get your head around there are disfigured children (including one made of blue smoke), and the Ten and Nine Doors that can magically transport characters from one area to another. Albeit there are some 'gotcha's' to any magical use...
The narrative is told by Tracker; although at times you can easily forget this as there is still dialogue and descriptions like a traditional novel. Similar to Lestat's interview story it is a little surprising that Tracker has (what appears to be) perfect recall of all the events. Interestingly I suspect (hope) this point will come up in the future of this series where perhaps the question is asked about whose 'version' of the events is truthful. For the purpose of just reading this book you will need to accept that Tracker is telling his story with great detail as he remembers it.

The Story
Some might argue this book is about the reason our fellowship exists (to find a boy and return him to his mother); but I would argue it's really the story of Tracker's transformation from what he was 5 years prior to what he has become at the time he is telling the story. I especially feel this way as the fellowship isn't even formed or an understood plot point until after page 200. Additionally, there is such a breadth of change in our lead character that at times it's hard to remember whose side he's on (if Tracker has one at all?). Because of this the plot felt lost to me at times (or I just didn't care?); but at the end to all comes back to the missing boy. I did appreciate that the ending ensured I remembered the plot and reason for the story post Chapter 9.
At times I felt like the narration aspect was lost (the exact same mistake Anne Rice made ironically); but overall that didn't bother me much until the last 100 pages or so. I think a couple more reminders about who was telling the story and to whom (Tracker to the Inquisitor) would have been prudent in the last 200 pages. It might have broken up the story a little. But honestly a breath or two wouldn't be all bad as we approached the very intense ending.

Names, Maps and Language... oh my!
Let's deal with three specific things I loved or hated.
1) Names: there are a crazy number of names or descriptive words that are similar to names in this book. For example just in the 'S' category we have: Sadogo, Sogolon, Sangoma, Sagomin, Sasabonsam. Now some of those are names and others are words that describe a type of monster, place or witch. But when you are struggling to remember any of the terms being used it can give the reader a headache. I definitely cursed James a few times for not explaining better who and what all these things were continually through the story. Thankfully for our main characters there is a list of names and who they are (and the location we first meet them) at the front of the book. I flipped to this a few dozen times (at least) while reading.
2) Maps: who doesn't love a good map?! There are over a dozen beautiful maps in this book. From our introductory kingdom/continent look (with magical doors marked and all!) to a map of each place or city/town that is visited at the beginning of each chapter. This helped me immensely to orient myself each time a door was used and near the end as things moved very quickly.
3) Language: a lot of our characters are lesser educated (to say the least) and so their language is stilted, lacking grammar or just flat out awkward. This meant I had to read a lot of dialogue lines a couple times. But it also gave me some really unique quotes; including this one (said by my fave character):
"How you keep to memory what the world tell you to forget."
Certainly this slows down the reading experience. But given how much content and action there is in James book it might be a good thing to read it all a little slower. I felt it gave a genuine voice to each character as none of them use language in quite the same way.

Social Issues
The breadth of issues that James touches on are far too many to discuss here. But some of the key points driven home include what is it that causes divisions amoungst the people of the entire Kingdom. These include (but are not limited to): sexuality (not everyone is okay with non-hetero choices), race, magic use, shape shifting, deities/religion, power and morality. What is a definite focus during Black Leopard, Red Wolf is that it's not always obvious what is morally 'correct' and that being on the 'right' side will likely end in an untimely death for the average person.
What is also investigated is why people just don't care anymore about the perception or interpretation of their actions. Sometimes you just want to do something. This line from Tracker sums up this desire well:
"On the way there I was hoping to meet a demon, or a spirit of someone who would feed the hunger of my two new axes. I truly wanted a fight."
There are many times when I found myself accepting what could otherwise be quite horrific as just the way this world is. And recognizing that our characters have had it hard enough without needing to analyse every decision to determine it's acceptability.

Who is Black Leopard, Red Wolf written for?
You may be wondering at this point who the primary audience is for this book. Let me be very clear here: THIS IS NOT YOUNG ADULT. Not at all. Nothing about this is appropriate for anyone under the age of 18 (maybe even 21 to be totally honest).
This is a story for those who love epic, elaborate books (like Gardens of the Moon or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell). This is for those who are tired of the typical romance, good vs. evil and obvious outcomes. Black Leopard, Red Wolf challenged almost every value I currently have. I loved it's ability to make me think and consider things from a different (and sometimes very morally questionable) perspective. If you want a story that pushes boundaries at every turn, with a cast of lovable and yet hate-worthy characters then this is probably the book for you.

One suggestion when reading the story: do not try to figure out all the things happening. You likely won't be able to piece out any of the insanely complex mysteries in this book to start with. I gave up and used the advice a friend gave me years ago when I went to see Inception (movie with DiCaprio) for the first time: just enjoy the ride. Analyse and consider after or on your next time through the content. I am greatly looking forward to my re-read(s?) and linking so many more things together.

Can you handle it?
Maybe you think this book might be for you but you are concerned about if it's going to be 'too much'. Let me say that without a doubt this is a depraved, disgusting, morally reprehensible, wicked world James has dropped us into; but consider the genius of an author that can write a scene so intense you actually feel ill or turned off. For me this shows crazy literary talent!
For those willing to give it a chance, if you can handle and get past Chapter 8 you'll be fine for the rest. Chapter 8 is the pinnacle of the gore. It doesn't get worse. It is note worthy that our core group of characters consists mostly of gay men (representation!) and there is a fair bit of sex talk between them. Now for those that aren't male or haven't been privy to a true male sex 'chat', let me warn you; it's not necessarily flattering (to anyone or any gender or sexuality). It's harsh, crude and well truthful. Sex is messy and pretending it isn't is just naive. These characters certainly don't hide the reality of m/m sex. One of my favourite parts of James writing is the constant banter between our characters; especially the male past-lovers.

On that note here is my Warning for those who are thinking, wow this book sounds amazing. I am hesitant to recommend this book to anyone (and yet want to recommend it to everyone all the same). I cannot predict your response to the torture and darkness James has given us. All I can say is I think it's brilliant; I love it's dark, gritty portrayal of what life might be life in a less organized society. If you read it and have nightmares or are turned off please don't blame me. You were warned.

On that note, a rant...
To those who claim anyone who likes this book (never mind loves it as I do) must be depraved, awful, horrible, morally abject or just downright evil people; I'd like to remind you that our world is just as awful as this one.
And that you should consider these points:
1) Enjoying this doesn't make me a psycho serial killer. The same as watching CSI doesn't make you a murder expert or obsessed with dead bodies, even though every show starts with a dead person (speaking of morbid...); nor does my love here even remotely infer that I am similar to our characters. It merely means I am entertained by the content. For the record I hate super gory movies. I still have nightmares about House of a Thousand Corpses. Reading content and seeing it are very different activities for my brain and I can handle a lot more when I read something than when I see it on screen.
2) Our world is a brutal place. Many of us, including myself, are able to disassociate from the awful things that happen on Earth daily in order to survive. But that doesn't mean they aren't happening and that we should allow ourselves to forget what people are capable of. Everything that happens in this book (that isn't related to magic or supernatural) is 100% plausible in real life. People do these types of awful things. Everything James writes about is an event that has likely happened (at least once) to a human or animal in real life.
3) This is fiction and it's okay to like any fiction. It is your choice to engage in nicer stories and I respect that. But I also expect others to show me the same respect. I don't think much of contemporary romance novels; but that doesn't mean I think all people who read them are fluffy, love-sick women. See what I mean? I can enjoy literature without personally embodying the subject matter or having the tone of the story represent me as a person.
4) Respect is important and I expect it to be given for ALL tastes. No one is forcing this book down your throat; it's not 'required reading' so don't pretend it's existence is abhorrent or an issue. If you believe that it is a problem that this was published then you have just jumped on the banning books bandwagon (and I don't believe the average reader condones this practice). We (should) live in a world of free speech; even when that speech is repulsive to some people it must still be permitted.

A quick side story... When I was 15 years old and first read Game of Thrones I thought it was the best book in the world. And at that time for me it was. Elaborate, epic fantasy where characters actually died and awful things happened (even to children) was what I craved. Teenage me would have died to read Black Leopard, Red Wolf (and shouldn't be allowed to until at least 16 or older!). I feel like I found in this story a darkness I knew (even back then) existed in our world and occasionally with myself and others. Today at 37 I can definitely say that James has provided me with a story I didn't know I needed so badly. Over the years I've come to find some connect with other grim-dark epic fantasy books including: Sara Douglass 'Wayfarer Redemption' series, Scott Bakker's 'Prince of Nothing' series and (of course) Game of Thrones. Generally I loved these books because 'evil' won, people were killed and NOT brought back, and that each of them delves into the idea of the 'good guy' losing (either the battle or themselves). Ironically none of these are my favourite fantasy series; but they hit a dark place in me with their mood, setting or characters. In Black Leopard, Red Wolf I feel I have found a story that really spoke to me. Even James lack of female representation is acceptable to me as, let's face it, most women (including me) couldn't play with the boys on the turf established by James. To feel the greed, lust, arrogance and other emotions of James characters has allowed me to remember that it's okay to be a little dark inside; and has reassured me that the average person may also have this blackness inside them and still be a (generally) good, functioning member of society.

Any book that takes me 23 days to read, and which I can still say I loved, must be amazing. My husband believes this is the longest I've ever taken to read a book in 10 years; not including one year when I was in and out of hospital. He may well be right. And yet I want to read Black Leopard, Red Wolf again right now; even if it takes another 23 days. How crazy!
All that said, I will confess I have not read anything other than short stories (all of which I loved) by Joe Ambercrombie, John Gwyne, Mark Lawrence or Glen Cook. But let me assure you they are all on my TBR and have been for sometime. A consideration that I thought of; maybe Black Leopard, Red Wolf came along at a point in my life when it just fit perfectly. Certainly Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel did that for me in college many years ago; it was just the perfect book for that point in my life and remains a favourite still today. Same as GOT as in my story above.
The moral crisis in our world, that is played out every day in the news, has been grating on me for years; and so I appreciate Marlon James reminding me that my small slice of the world could *always* be a lot worse. Maybe even worse than I ever imagined. I also appreciate his willingness to publish something so deep and dark knowing that many people might consider him awful because of where his imagination takes this story.

Last note, I did something unusual with this book; these days I have a rule about starting epic fantasy without knowing there is a completion in the future. GRRM has burned me so bad over the years that I have actually changed how I select my fantasy reads. I broke this rule here because I just had to know what the buzz was all about. I just hope James doesn't break my heart and mind by never publishing the rest of the story. Although interestingly... unlike GOT I could actually accept the ending here as a stand-alone. I'm dying for more; but if nothing more was written; at least there is a certain dark ambiguity that book 1 leaves off on which makes it an ending of a particular quality.

As always my highest compliment is to purchase a print copy of a book for my bookshelf after reading an ARC or library version (I read the hardcover from my library on this one). I am definitely getting a copy of this book. In fact I'm already perusing to see if I can get a signed first edition hardcover copy to put next to my first paperback edition of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and my signed by George R. R. Martin (I met him long before HBO had their contract) Game of Thrones hardcover.
I'm really not kidding when I say that Black Leopard, Red Wolf is that damn good and I'm very confident that it will remain a favourite in the future for me. Even if it's a little hard to take at times and consumes a fair chunk of reading time.
Profile Image for Matt Quann.
652 reviews385 followers
December 20, 2019
If a Venn diagram showing who might love Black Leopard, Red Wolf existed, I think you’d find me quite snuggly nestled in its overlapping circles of fantasy and literary fiction.

Since it was announced, I’ve been absolutely jazzed about Marlon James’ new novel. Though it was a lot of work, A Brief History of Seven Killings left an indelible mark on my literary consciousness and imagining what the man behind that novel could produce in the world of fantasy was positively electrifying.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf lives up to those lofty expectations, but also manages to warp and distort fantasy conventions while building an entirely new scaffolding on which James builds the genre's next step in evolution.

Our lead, Tracker AKA Mr. Ithasbeensaidyouhaveanose, opens the book by telling us we might as well quit while we’re ahead: the boy we’re interested in has bitten the dust. It turns out Tracker, who can find anyone in the world so long as he knows their scent, is being put to 20 questions by an unpleasant sounding Fetish Priest. Despite a pretty good opening answer, the inquisitor still wants to know all about Tracker’s search and rescue mission to get this mysterious boy.

What follows is an oral account by the olfactory wonder, who is known the world over not only for his tracking abilities, but also for his bad attitude, saucy ripostes, and mad-good killing ability. You’ll get to meet his friend, the novel title-sharing Leopard, as well as the gang who sets off in search of the aforementioned boy. The squad’s a sort of psychologically damaged, drug-addled, sex-obsessed Fellowship of the Ring who are more in it for the money and murder than they are the altruism.

A friend who’d read the book before me described it as, “The meth of the fantasy world.” Though I think the narcotic comparison is accurate—this is some of the most hardcore fantasy I’ve read—I have a slightly different take on the substances the book most closely resembles. If >A Brief History of Seven Killings is a cocaine-fueled, fast-paced, paranoia-packed, stimulant-enhanced journey, then Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a whole bag of psilocybin mushrooms taken on a walk through the woods.

Though the book is nowhere near as challenging as A Brief History of Seven Killings, it is just as meticulously constructed and features endless hallucinatory and ambiguous passages. In point of fact, the first 100 pages or so gift the reader a painfully trying experience. Most writers try and give the reader a foothold from which they can take a vantage point on the world around them. By comparison, Black Leopard, Red Wolf threw me off the side of a cliff as I scrambled for any handhold. Indeed, for this reason I’m not at all surprised to read reviews that announce early abandonment of the novel.

But, for those of you who do persist through the confusing and disorienting opening chapters, there’s a whole world of wonder on the other side. Mind you, the wonder is blood, semen, and shit splattered, but wondrous nonetheless. Put simply, this is a novel filled to the brim with such primordial world building that it should leave the seasoned fantasy veteran salivating at the world it slowly uncovers. There’s hardly a page that passes without some foul beastie making its debut or some strange practice throttling one’s mind. Or at least every page not spattered in sex and violence.

Indeed, it should be said that this is not a book for the faint of heart in any way. This book is a sexpot and it is overflowing with straight sex, gay sex, monster sex, giant sex, and copious descriptions of the associated scents of such copulation. What’s more, the violence is visceral, brutal, and no man, woman, or child is spared the horrors of Marlon James’ world. This is a world in which children are butchered and their body parts sold to witches, where murder is the surest form of currency, and violent lust often takes center stage.

James has said before that if you are going to write about violence, it should be violent. There’s no doubt that he follows through on that maxim and delivers some of the most stomach-churning scenes I’ve read in some time. Luckily, he also bangs out an action scene like no one else and makes some combat scenes that are nothing short of exhilarating.

There are a few parts of the book that could have used some pruning. Some of the back-and-forth dialogue becomes infuriating in its repetition and ability to confuse the story. Though I praise James for making this book inscrutable and its narrator unreliable, some of these bits of conversation frustrated me where other inconsistencies were intriguing. What’s more, the start of the book didn’t feel like it needed to be so challenging. Though I enjoyed parts of it, there’s a sharp demarcation line between it and the rest of the novel in terms of readability.

Evidently, I really had a great time with this book. Even when it was at its most challenging, I was intrigued, interested, and hesitant to put it down. The final fifty pages rocket towards a blood-soaked conclusion and when I came upon the last page I was crestfallen that more of this world wasn’t waiting for me. The ending is in many ways conclusive, but it also deftly sets up the second volume in which another character will retell the story from their perspective. I can’t wait to get my hands on it!

Finally, the business of to whom I should recommend this novel. Rather than pointing to a fan of the fantasy genre or literary fiction crowd, I think the best litmus test is how much you like Marlon James. Because, if you enjoyed A Brief History of Seven Killings, then you’re going to find something to love in Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Despite all the hype and comparison, this book is simply the next Marlon James novel and a singular work that could have only sprouted from his pen.

And, if you’ve never read one of James’ novels, buckle the hell up.
Profile Image for mwana .
381 reviews287 followers
September 25, 2023
I tell you true and I tell you wise. Is three years ago a child was taken, a boy.
The plan was simple. Tracker worked with his long-time companion Leopard, and a company of others--including a river witch, Bunshi, a moon witch, Sogolon, and a skin changer, Nyka. This fellowship was tasked with finding this boy, who may be the key to undoing the curse plaguing the lands in the North and forestalling a war with the South. But when the book starts, the boy is dead.

Tracker has since been captured by an Inquisitor working for the sister king of the North, and baby mama of a Southern prince, Lissisolo. She is the mother of the child. She wants answers. She wants vengeance. She wants justice. Demands that permeate the stories of all the main players in this story.

This book was marketed as the African answer to Game of Thrones. At first, I figured this to be a disservice but after reading the book I understand the comparison. Frankly, I find it reductive that this book is compared to a straitlaced political fantasy limited to the machinations of its major players and low magic. Marlon James' Black Leopard Red Wolf is so much more. It is a political drama with major players who try to drive destiny at major cost, designing their own failure by betraying their best allies for "the greater good". Sogolon learns this painfully when she subjects Tracker to inhumane torture and tells him, Fasisi is bigger than you.

It's also a well-realised world with distinct districts with their own customs and practices. When we were in Dolingo, the queen stood out. A villain who had technology far more sinister than magic. She ran her people with the apparition of an iron fist,
"...And why would I, the wisest of queens, not speak that savage North tongue --especially when I constantly have to deal with savages? A child could learn it in a day... Why does my court not ooh and ahh?"
It felt like a Tolkienesque world with far more threats than wonder. This was a world out to kill you.

Tracker, our lone narrator throughout the whole book, is one to make enemies everywhere he goes. When he first meets Leopard, the cat man tells him,
You could have a family of one and still drive them apart.
Some of his direct enemies are the many witches that punctuate this story. Mossi, his love and lover, later tells him,
...Perhaps you hate none, not even your mother. But tell me I lie when I say you always expected the worst of Sogolon. And every other woman you have met.
And yet he still harbours a grudging appreciation for Sangoma, a witch who blessed him, and prevented metallic threats, poisons and curses from afflicting him. He had a languishing forgiveness for his mother who faced abuse and in turn, let him endure the same paternal abuse. His beloved adopted children, many of them girls, owned him body and soul. While no one has a singularly good time in this book, I did appreciate that instead of turning the women into damsels or helpless victims, they were frequently able enemies. And in this book, death is an equal opportunity occurrence.

This story can be difficult to follow for those not willing to do the work. Tracker is telling a story within a story within a story. He is explaining all this to the Inquisitor while trapped in a prison, having lost everything. The dramatic irony lent a sense of urgency and dread. We fall in love with the friends Tracker makes along the way like the delightful Eastern prefect, Mossi. His greatest ally, the Black Leopard. The former murderer and gentle not-giant, Sadogo. We also meet his enemies and people who will become enemies, the mind-controlling god butcher, the Aesi, the man-eating monster Sasabosam, the white scientist who went too far and turned into an arachnoid man-eater, Kamikwayo, whom Tracker could only escape with a Scheherazade-approved method of self-preservation. Each character is so distinct and pronounced, at no point do you mistake one for another or feel like they're superfluous.

Another thing I absolutely loved was the language. In African folkloric storytelling, we use very straightforward language. In this book, because Tracker harkens back to the traditional hero, he speaks as though his English is direct translation of a mother tongue. I found myself laughing out loud a lot because many statements said were similar to how we spoke before we later perfected our diction. Tracker's narrative voice felt like an ancestral home,
"My ears going tired from the sound of witches."
A night fat with heat.
"You blaspheming the gods?"
"Blaspheming means you believe."
"You don't believe in gods?"
"I don't believe in belief..."
This book explores multiple themes. I appreciated how James didn't care whether his reader was overwhelmed or not. Like a Shakespearean tragedy, he knew that those who stayed with the story would be rewarded for their patience. In this book we tackle sexism, religion, trauma, grief, abuse, war, politics, faith, slavery, revolution etc.

Tracker is also a pragmatist. He comes off as a reliable narrator because he doesn't find it necessary to colour facts with his opinion, until he's asked of course. When a slave revolt happens in Dolingo, he's on the brink of having survived being tortured, Mossi sees the historical relevance of witnessing political rebellion. But Tracker knows the cost of revolution,
Until the slaves see they would rather the bondage they know than the freedom they do not.

But perhaps what I appreciated most was the cultural practices peppered in throughout the story. I could recognize African names. Sangoma means witch in Zulu. The houses made with cow dung... my grandmother still has a house like this, the Maasai make such and they're known as manyattas. Discussion about "cutting the woman out of a man" circumcision, a common transitional practice for young men.

There is the question of whether intent negates impact. Does Tracker's loss matter less because Sogolon thought she was doing the right thing? Earlier in the book Lissisolo herself asks Sogolon about the point of bringing about this boy king,
Fuck all lords. All these kings come from the womb of woman. What is to stop this man-child from doing just as all other man has done? Kill all men.
Considering the destruction wrought by this boy, whether by his fault or not is debatable, his mother's doubt was magnificent foreshadowing.

Marlon's African response to Game of Thrones is almost perfect. And it's not surprising to see why. In his 2019 New Yorker profile (the reason I decided to read this book), he reveals that he started writing by attempting a Jamaican version of Cinderella. This book borrows heavily from pre-colonial Africa, if you know little about that period then this book appears to be difficult and convoluted. I'm sorry (not really) you're not in Wakanda any more.

The Dark Star trilogy is told in Rashomon style. The second book is from Sogolon's point of view. In a 2022 interview with Time, James says, "If we were talking about truth, we would have to go back to oral storytelling, and that's how far I went back with my research; there are things your eyes will skip that your ears won't. A lot of these old stories, particularly African stories, didn't come with a moral centre. It's a very Western thing to believe that the simple fact that you're telling a story means you have the authority to tell it."

I hate Sogolon. I hate her with every fibre of my being. But I am willing to trust James to use this untrustworthy vessel to further carry his story. There's a certain witchcraft in James' storytelling. I cared for every outcome, every punctuation mark, every character. I wept after having gone weeks unable to feel much. This story reminded me of innate humanity. It's hallucinatory, encompassing, infectious, addictive. I tell you true and I tell you wise, I will never be same again. Bring on the moon witch.
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