Black Leopard, Red Wolf

by Marlon James

Where on Earth do I even start with this book. For those of you who are not familiar, Marlon James is the incredible author of A Brief History of Seven Killings, and this is his take on the epic fantasy genre. I chose to read this book next because I had been reading some pretty high-minded fiction and dense non-fiction, so I wanted something a little lighter. I figured "hey, it's a fantasy book so I will get lost in a nice little world and be on my way."

WOW was that wrong, this book is anything but light reading. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a book about a boy who is lost, and a man who finds people with his nose. This is a fantasy book that draws from African folklore as its source material, which gives the book a pretty fresh setting as far as fantasy books go. Despite that, there are a lot of familiar monsters; vampires, shape shifters, and witches all make an appearance.

Right off the bat I will say this: if you do not like violence or taboo subject matter, please do not read this book. This book contains just about every violent and depraved act out there, and it happens a lot. I don't know if I would categorize it as gratuitous, but there is a ton of violent actions in this book. Violence against men, women, children, and animals, constantly. James has created an extremely brutal and unforgiving world, and refuses to pull any punches.

This book basically reads like a fever dream, bordering on a nightmare. I think that might have been the strongest part about it; the book feels like you are stumbling through a grotesque dreamscape where everything is off by a few degrees, and the only way out is through. This book doesn't evoke positive emotions whatsoever, although the arguments between the narrator and his friends/boyfriends are pretty cute, but it certainly evokes a lot of sensations. I don't think I have physically squirmed while reading a book in a while, but Black Leopard, Red Wold had me going every chapter.

The world that James has built is certainly unique, although I would argue that the book devolves into a pretty standard epic fantasy about the first 150 pages. At first I thought it was unlike anything I had ever read, but once the plot kicks up it reads like a lot of other fantasy books I have read. It was interesting seeing some of the similarities and differences in a fantasy based on African folklore versus one based more on Western ideas. There are still monsters that are essentially vampires, trolls, ogres, but with interesting twists that kept meeting the monsters pretty entertaining.

Overall, I sort of enjoyed this book although I find it difficult to recommend. The writing was superb, although I think the narrative dragged a bit in parts. The story was a bit generic for me. There's a shit load of violence, and the sense of having a bad dream was ever present. I read the whole thing so there's definitely something there that I enjoyed.