Early in Marlon James’ astounding fantasy epic Black Leopard Red Wolf, a shape-shifting mermaid named Bunshi tells the tale of a powerful man destroyed by demons.
“The Leopard,” James writes, “his eyes wide open, was listening like a child left in a bush of ghosts.”
That’s how I felt as I read: swept by story into a strange and wild world, thrilled (and a little scared) to be there.
James, who was born and raised in Jamaica and teaches writing at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., won the Man Booker Prize for his 2014 novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings. Taking off from the 1976 attempted murder of singer Bob Marley, that novel is a technical tour de force, spanning several decades in Jamaica and the United States and told by more than 70 characters.
A Brief History is, among many other things, a searing look at postcolonialism. Black Leopard Red Wolf is set in precolonial Africa, in an age of myth, of monsters and heroes, and characters who sometimes turn from one to the other. Its sweep and complex world-building echo such fantasy epics as The Lord of the Rings and One Hundred Years of Solitude; James said after winning the Man Booker that he wanted to write “an African Game of Thrones.” Black Leopard Red Wolf is the first book of his planned Dark Star trilogy.
This novel’s dizzying array of cultural references include Shakespeare, the Malian epic Sundiata Keita, Joseph Campbell’s studies of the hero’s journey and riffs on the Rolling Stones — a slave trader is described repeatedly as “a man of wealth and taste.”
James wrote the novel before Black Panther became a big-screen phenom, but he’s a lifelong consumer of comics, and they’re a major influence on Black Leopard Red Wolf. (The book was published Tuesday; on Wednesday came the announcement that movie rights for it had been secured by actor Michael B. Jordan’s Outlier Productions and Warner Bros.) The novel’s setting is a whole continent of Wakandas, of cities and kingdoms populated entirely by dark-skinned people. Call its characters demi-gods or superheroes; either way, they have extraordinary powers and operate outside our usual notions of polite behavior.
The book’s title is taken from the names of its main characters. Black Leopard is a shape-shifter who can transform in an instant from a fierce, huge, flesh-eating cat to a smolderingly sexy human man who might be even more dangerous.
Red Wolf is just one name for the book’s narrator, who is more often known as Tracker, thanks to his uncanny sense of smell. He can find people who are miles or days away and tell by their scent whether they are alive or dead or having an affair, and with whom. “When I was young,” he says, “I had to cover my nose, almost killing myself when they got too loud. I still go mad sometimes.”
His tracking talents can earn him a handsome living, and they launch him on the quest that threads through the book, the search for a missing boy whose identity shifts even more than Tracker’s own.
He gains another important superpower when he and the Leopard help a group of mingi — children who are abandoned (or worse) by their parents because they have been born with conditions thought to indicate they are cursed. A magical being called a Sangoma cares for them: conjoined twins, a boy with no legs, a girl made of smoke. In exchange for Tracker’s protection, the Sangoma casts a spell that protects him from being cut with anything made of metal, a boon for a man often surrounded by people armed with swords, knives, axes and ill will.
Race, in the terms we think of it, is not a factor in Tracker’s world. White skin is an abhorrent anomaly — some of the mingi children are cast out because they are albinos. European civilization is a whisper of a rumor: “Kingdoms where people’s skin was paler than sand, and every seven days they ate their own god.”
Other human failings run rampant, however. Power, greed, betrayal, lust, abuse, slavery, war — there are all sorts of devils and demons loose in Tracker’s world, but the humans give them a run for their money.
As for Tracker and the Leopard, well, it’s complicated. They are deadly comrades in arms as mercenaries, occasional tender-hearted protectors of women and children, and on-again, off-again lovers.
If graphic descriptions of violence or sex give you the fantods, go read something else. The fight scenes and battles royale in Black Leopard Red Wolf are many and pyrotechnical: Blood spurts, limbs are hacked off and the body count is endless. Tracker is called Red Wolf because he has one eye taken from a wolf. The story of how he lost his own eye made my blood run cold and my stomach roll over.
Sex crosses gender and species lines freely and ranges from brutal rape to tender lust — love may be a little too much to hope for in Tracker’s world. “Nobody loves no one,” he likes to say, a koan that gets trickier every time he repeats it. “Like, I like,” he tells us. “Dislike, I love. Disgust, I can feel. Loathing, I can grab in the palm of my hand and squeeze. And hatred, I can live in hatred for days.”
The structure of Black Leopard Red Wolf is episodic and complex, following that quest for the missing boy and bending back to Tracker’s and the Leopard’s origin stories. James offers guidance, including a list of more than 80 characters and five hand-drawn maps, but don’t strive too hard for the linear, just go with the flow (or the raging waters). Black Leopard Red Wolf’s momentum is powered by James’ incantatory, lush prose and magical storytelling. If our own world is too much with you, the bush of ghosts awaits.
Contact Colette Bancroft at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.
Black Leopard Red Wolf
By Marlon James
Riverhead Books, 620 pages, $30