Black Leopard, Red Wolf
May 16, 2019 7:56 PM - by Marlon James - Subscribe

Jamaican author Marlon James’ epic fantasy novel, set in an imaginary land that draws from African placenames, languages, and mythos, is his followup to 2014’s Man Booker prizewinning “A Brief History of Seven Killings” and is intended as the first work in a trilogy.

James discussed his love for SFF in this enthusiastic New Yorker profile ahead of the book’s publication. I am partway through, and am enjoying the book. I see what I take as clear debts to Le Guin and Leiber, among others, and thought a thread here might be a good place to get others’ insights and thoughts.

James is gay and this perspective informs the narrative as gay sexuality is a component of his protagonist’s experiences and observations. In this sense and in the sense that the novel is inverting SFF tropes by centering its’ mythos and worldbuilding away from European medievalist models, James is writing a queer work, but I hesitate to describe the work as queer in the manner I would certain works by Samuel R. Delany or William S. Burroughs, and do not feel qualified to discuss the work from this perspective either. I haven’t added queer or gay or Afrocentric to the tags on this basis, please feel free to correct me if I should.

A quick summary follows. A more comprehensive one is available at Wikipedia.

Tracker “has a nose”, and finds people across a mythic landscape. He crosses paths with shape-changing beings, demigods, demons, monsters, and slavers as he accepts a commission to find a mysterious boy in the company of several others, likewise gifted or cursed with abilities and experiences that set them apart. High-fantasy quest narrative set in an Afrocentric mythos.
posted by mwhybark (9 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I am reading this book and recommending it to everyone I know who might be interested. I am enjoying the unreliable narrator telling the stories of other unreliable narrators. The attitude and personality of Tracker buoyed by the prose presented in the manner of folktales works to make stimulating reading. I go back and re-read often, not because the prose is difficult, but sometimes subtle in what it does not say.

For readers of fantasy take the time to savor an uncommon flavor of the genre.

Once I am finished reading it the first time I look forward to a spoilers discussion on what promises to be a great book and series.

Now of course I have jinxed it.
posted by Ignorantsavage at 2:17 AM on May 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is on my to-read list (probably after I finish all of the Hugos reading). I really enjoyed this conversation between Marlon James and Victor LaValle, too.

(unfollowing this post until I actually read it, spoiler away)
posted by dinty_moore at 6:15 AM on May 17, 2019

I have been on a kick chasing SFF works by people of color and think I’ll reread Delany’s Neveryöna stuff next. I was nudged in this direction by a reread and readthrough of all six LeGuin Earthsea books, which was a heartily worthwhile experience and which led me to Butler and Jemisin. LeGuin seems like a very strong influence on this book.

James’ prose and pursuit of an Afrocentric mythic voice both the the speech of the characters and in the non-spoken material, descriptions and inner thoughts and the like, seems effective to me and reminds me of my limited exposure to African folktales as a child, in particular to Gerald McDermott’s book and film Anansi the Spider. I don’t think I have ever read any particular critical analysis of this work, let alone a contemporary critical analysis.

I am interested in a scholastic look at James’ sources and inspirations for Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Many of the cultural references he’s working with are well outside my scope of knowledge, such as the multi-cultural African myth of werehyenas. It’s really fascinating to experience this sense of vaguely apprehending a larger cultural fabric within which and from which this specific work is being woven.
posted by mwhybark at 6:56 AM on May 17, 2019

I've just started this and have liked the small portion I've read so far.
posted by Dip Flash at 1:19 PM on May 19, 2019

I finished this yesterday. What a fantastic book! I've never read anything quite like it. I highly recommend it.

I hope some artist brings Dolingo to life, I'd love to gaze at pictures of it.
posted by homunculus at 7:40 PM on May 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

This book really was amazing. My only two "complaints" - and I put that in quotes because they aren't really complaints - are about my own understanding about what the book would be about.

1 - I did not know, until I was deep into the book, that the author is gay; and so at first, I wondered if much of the focus on sexuality was homophobic, not recognizing it as the main character coming to terms with himself

2 - having read much more science fiction than epic fantasy lately, and generally preferring it, I was not prepared for so many characters to have magical abilities, especially Tracker's nigh-invulnerability; the first (?) story he told, about traveling to the underworld, probably should have clued me in that this would be more like mythology with demigod-like characters than a straight-ahead adventure tale

I'm really looking forward to the sequel, and am curious to see what he'll do with a female protaganist as opposed to the misogynist Tracker.
posted by mistersix at 12:34 PM on July 16, 2019

Coming back to the book after a zero-time-to-read hiatus I wanted to note a couple of amusing reversals in the book. First, in Dolingo, closing EIGHTEEN, we read

“As he said so, I smelled it. The smell grew sweeter and stronger. In the red room nobody saw the orange mist coming from the floor. Mossi fell first. I staggered, fell to my knees, and saw Sadogo run to the door, punching the wall out of anger, fall back on his bottom, then full on his back, and shaking the room, before everything in the room went white.”

Tracker and Mossi are taken captive in Dolingo by the Queen’s forces in collaboration with a member of their quest party. Knocked out, Tracker experiences the room going white. Bravo!

Second, and less textually direct, I read Dolingo as an answer beat to Rivendell, and boy howdy, is that an answer! The mix of what struck me as funny as hell and just inventively working to build an in-universe satirical critique of not just Rivendell but Disneyland has kept me chuckling for days.
posted by mwhybark at 9:18 PM on September 2, 2019

Just put it down, fortuitously before a Dhalgren reread.

Without getting too spoilery, Tracker has a last-third heel turn which is not explained for reasons of dramatic tension until it is explained. During this part of the book, he makes and extends alliances with supernatural beings that can fairly be described as demons but who also are sometimes literal old friends and companions of the road. I’m thinking Tracker is, unbeknownst to himself, among their number, an adventurer turned demon by the logic of his road and mythos. So that seems a likely literary puzzle.

The other thing I wanted to note, and to celebrate, is the thoughtful and considered exploration of the motif of the changeling - the abandoned or orphaned child, often an adoptee - in genre. This is a particular hobbyhorse of mine, as an adoptee, and I have made efforts in the context of FF to not point it out every single time when I notice it.

That said, it is a crucial and carefully written element of the book. Tracker feels abandonded by his mother and birth family, for reasons I’ll leave for the reader. He compensates by declaring himself father to a crew of literally improbable misfit children - the mingi - and when disaster strikes it destroys his psyche. He insists that he is the mingi children’s father, an insistence I found moving and unique in genre with respect to this relationship.

I have many critical things to say about American adoption. But my adoptive father is my *father*. Tracker may not have been the best father to his mingi kids, but I believe him. This seems maybe unique in-genre, where the changeling-adoptee motif is not primarily deployed as a means to introducing special powers, although here obviously each being does have such.
posted by mwhybark at 12:25 AM on September 7, 2019

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