Review: Black Leopard, Red Wolf

I haven’t quite managed to get my head round Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf, a massive swords-and-sorcery-type fantasy novel set in a fictionalised Africa. James is primarily a lit-fic writer – his Brief History of Seven Killings won the Man Booker prize in 2015 – and I think perhaps I’m bringing the wrong set of reading protocols, lit-fic instead of fantasy, to the text as a result.

In any case, the novel’s protagonist is a man known only as Tracker, in reference to his preternatural powers of smell. Tracker’s hired to hunt down a missing child who, in true storytelling tradition, may well be vital to the future of the kingdom. The problem, or one of them, is that he’s not the only one who’s been hired; alongside him are working a witch, a giant, a shapeshifter and others. Tracker is very much Not A Fan of working in teams, and says so, repeatedly, as the gang travel through enchanted woods, magical one-way doors,

So, plot-wise, the novel is basically grimdark fantasy. Loner fighter hates everyone and is cynical; gets paid to go on quest; bad stuff happens very graphically (content warnings for gore and rape). There’s even a map, and a list of dramatis personae at the beginning. (It’s worth noting here that Tracker is gay, as are at least three other characters, and the only time it’s a Thing is when they visit homophobic societies. It’s refreshing!) But it has few of the formal qualities of traditional European fantasy, apart from the obvious one of being written in prose. It hops around in time; starts before the main story begins; switches between first person and omniscient third.

Abigail Nussbaum suggests that these techniques are reminiscent of oral storytelling traditions; so that part of James’ project here is challenging the primacy of European modes of fantasy. And it’s true that it’s a great delight to visit a fantasy world that isn’t based on a sanitised version of Europe, the prevalence of which does no-one any favours and is pretty boring to boot.

It’s just…I don’t know what the novel is doing beyond that. I don’t think it’s as radical as it thinks it is – or, at least, as its author’s lit-fic roots would suggest. Which is kind of nice, given the fact that a lot of lit-fic authors who stray into SFF tend to act like they’ve single-handedly invented the wheel when actually they’ve done something that Asimov did better forty years ago. It’s nice to find a lit-fic author doing SFF well, and thoughtfully. I think, on reflection, that Black Leopard, Red Wolf is worth reading if you’re looking for intelligent SFF. And I’m looking forward to reading its planned sequels.

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