Black Leopard, Red Wolf reads like a catalyzing event.
The discourse surrounding Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James skewers an approbation pertaining to the critical acceptance of fantasy literature. While fantasy as a storytelling strategy can be traced to the first poets performing recitations, literary critics still find it a lesser form when compared to realistic fiction. Fresh off winning the Man Booker Prize for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings in 2015, James’ announcement that his next venture would be a fantasy epic steeped in African history and folklore was seen as iconoclastic as it is every time an acclaimed author of literary fiction indulges the whim to play in the pool of their greatest influences. That James’ choice was analyzed negatively as a somehow insulting to the establishment that just rewarded him is both frustrating and reactionary. Had James acceded to this criticism we readers would have been robbed of a unique and excellent novel that betters its genre by making Blackness and homosexuality defining aspects of its hero. Women and writers of color have edged fantasy literature toward a paradigm shift beyond White, male protagonists, but Black Leopard, Red Wolf reads like a catalyzing event, a power that resides in Tracker, a truly great character that narrates the whole affair.
If you’ve heard Marlon James speak, it becomes impossible to separate the author from his invention. Gifted with a magical sense of smell that allows him to find anyone anywhere once he has their scent, Tracker acts as our guide through the North and South Lands of James’ Afrocentric adventure. He narrates his own story with relish, spinning yarns and tangents pertaining to the history of the lands and kingdoms he has traveled, the lovers he’s kept, his many victories, his failures and the inexplicable events he’s experienced on his adventures. Both melancholy and joyful, you can’t help but hear James’ deep, accented voice when reading Tracker and wondering if this is the culmination of the heroes the writer invented for himself as a boy. Tracker feels like a character lived in for decades like a Dungeons and Dragons figure James painted and named in the ‘80s and keeps on his desk to this day.
The story Tracker tells is essentially a quest for a boy. Tracker is mercenary with his skill and happy to find anything and anyone for silver or gold though he prefers the latter. But the narrative is nonlinear and Tracker’s recounting of stories is almost endless. Every tribe, village, city and territory he travels has a history to be told. There are witches and witch killers to be described. Monsters hunt in jungles and on the city streets, making Tracker’s world more gruesome and dangerous than Middle-earth ever could be. The book opens with Tracker in prison, giving testimony to an Inquisitor. He tells many gruesome tales, layering a world as violent as Westeros, but full of more dangerous magic.
Tracker’s mastery of story rivals that of his creator, and James’ ability to establish his fantasy world through a meandering first person narrative generates a surprising amount of propulsion, if not occasional confusion. Tracker’s histories and side tales all serve the greater story, though remembering all the threads can be a challenge at times, but James never leads us to a place of tedium. He and Tracker are both profane, bawdy and gruesome weavers of tales, and the intensity of the telling might envelope you in ways you have not experienced in a long while. But that transference might be a part of James working in a genre he’s loved since childhood and wanted to imbue with both Blackness and queerness. By tracking this new world on the page through this atypical strategy, you get lost in it like someone new to fantasy who doesn’t know the usual narrative rules of the genre. More than once, James managed to frighten this reviewer, no easy trick after decades of reading the canon of monster makers.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is an intentional, political act that exists to show us how lacking mainstream fantasy fiction truly has been by having so few characters like Tracker. While he is a singular creation, his sexuality and ethnicity are just so powerfully normalized that any prejudice toward heteronormativity and default Whiteness gets easily sublimated. The book undoubtedly has a lineage of lesser known works by Black and queer writers, but it is commanding in the attention it requires. This is exactly the kind of story we are talking about when the topic is inclusion, one that shows that heroism has no racial or sexual specificity. James may not win another Booker Prize for this effort, but he has elevated the form and hopefully that will be recognized. While the trilogy has become a rather tired element of fantasy and science fiction publishing, this is the first of a promised series that I find myself looking forward to. Tracker is one of the great, indelible characters of fantasy literature, and I look forward to where he will lead me next.