James, Marlon. Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Riverhead Books. 2019. $30.00. 640. HC. 9780735220171
At the most basic level, Marlon James’s stunning new novel (the first in a projected trilogy) is a quest fantasy: a man named Tracker with a preternaturally sensitive nose is hired to find a missing boy, along with a motley band of adventurers — a witch, a giant, a man who can turn into a leopard, a woman made of liquid.
But structurally it’s dense in a way that will not be familiar to many sword and sorcery readers, and it’s not always easy to follow. There are stories within stories, the chronology is not always clear, and since the frame story is that the narrator is being interrogated, the tale is sometimes deliberately obscured. The imagery and logic are often dreamlike; events follow naturally on one another, but not in a way that’s immediately obvious. Of all the classic science fiction and fantasy I have read, it reminded me most of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun in terms of the need to simply surrender to the narrative and let it unfold. Don’t let me lead to you believe that I was frustrated by the book, however! It has beautiful flow and pacing and it was an incredibly rewarding read.
It is also welcome to experience a fantasy world that is derived from Africa, with a narrator who is explicitly gay. Tracker is a very human and fallible character, and often very frustrating, but by the end my heart broke with him. I don’t know if the promised sequels will follow Tracker or another character in the same world, but this book feels like a complete story in and of itself – there are no George R.R. Martin cliffhangers here.
I highly recommend this book for all adult fiction collections.