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“The child is dead. There is nothing left to know." - Tracker

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a fantasy novel written by Jamaican-born Marlon James. Published in 2019 by Riverside Books, this was James' fourth book, and first since his 2014 Man Booker Prize winning A Brief History of Seven Killings. BL,RW is a stunning physical addition to a bookshelf. The pages are a crisp, modern edge with all-black pages indicating section breaks (and new maps!). The cover is a deep, royal purple with a gold sans-serif author monogram. The spine is hemoglobin-red with just the particulars: title, author, press.

The dust jacket is breath-catching.

Designed by Helen Yentus and illustrated by Pablo Gerardo Camacho, the all-black jacket is a medley of purple-reds and bluish-greens. There are four pairs of eyes: those of the titular Leopard and wolf, those of a principal antagonist, and single, warping python tracing all edges of the art. All eyes are staring at you, as if the work is prepared to inspect you even as you ready to inspect it. Triangulating your position via some witchcraft of perspective; obstructing your perception via some standard fieldcraft deception.

A man will suffer misery to get to the bottom of truth, but he will not suffer boredom.” - Basu Fumanguru

BL,RW is a phenomenal addition to the pantheon of modern fantasy. There is a discomfort in studying this work: seeing stories unfurl from the mainmast of African myths rather than Euro-centric ones, seeing action sequences spiral out of balance with a violence ever-on-the-verge of gore, a blasé presentation of a consistent veneer of sexual violence (mostly male-on-male violence, except for one notable post-event example) and profanity. The novel has prompted a struggle between passionate support and vocal damnation, with most negative reviews (low ratings on Goodreads) specifically referring to these elements of discomfort as the aspect of the book which has lost them as a reader - of this offering and the trilogy proper. These same reviews, of the representative dozen I read, insist there is no justification for the gleeful exuberance with which Tracker presents the violence/sexual assault/profanity. These reviews state: their inclusion does not advance the plot, it caricatures Tracker’s development rather than grant him depth, and are therefore and generally unnecessary.

I disagree with these assessments. Strongly.

I don’t think these critics were reading closely enough. A close reading is required here; I didn't include the word “study” accidentally. I was paging backwards to the start of a conversation or action sequence during one out of every four chapters. I read the first chapter five separate times.

It would be a dirty, dirty spoiler to share when I read it.

Or why.

The narrative itself is violent. The narrative is profane. The narrative shares (relative to the culture of the kingdoms in this fantasy world) extreme views on masculinity, male sexuality, family, and circumcision. These extreme, profanity-laced views are layered across all sub-stories Tracker shares - not, I would say, for sake of plot. But rather for sake of structure.

“Right now, your story has meat where you will not talk, bone where you will.”

BL,RW has a fascinating structure. In an era of multiple-perspective, third person omnipotent prose Marlon James presents his audience with a single-perspective verbal account. The entire novel is related from the perspective of one character: Tracker. What is easy to forget, I think due to the character having no lines but for what we imagine between Tracker’s soliloquies and retorts, is that there is another person in the room.

The entirety of BL,RW is a verbal account which Tracker provides to an Inquisitor. A man who Tracker, from as early as page 2, seeks to impugn, ridicule, and provoke. Tracker provides a hypnotic series of stories to fill the years between his youth and current imprisonment. He loops backwards and forward; he omits and repeats himself; he meanders when he should rush and skips madly forward when he ought to be more clear.

He is doing so because he is a hostile witness, held against his will, with a recent attempt against his life.

He is *trying* to obfuscate the true truth, so that he might present a story the Inquisitor might believe as true. He is *trying* to make the Inquisitor squirm and blush with frequent profanity and homosexual escapades, to distract the Inquisitor from the metaphor (or absence thereof) within the particular story being related. He is *trying* to avoid a death sentence.

The Inquisitor holds his own.

Or so we are left to believe.

“Something to fight for or nothing to lose, which makes you a finer warrior? I have no answer." - Tracker

Various times across the story Tracker ruminates that he would have thought the Inquisitor prefer clarification of a different aspect of the prior story - a subtle type of “anchoring” within which Tracker is trying to moor the Inquisitor’s investigation against exploring more fertile bays. This indicates that the Inquisitor is listening very intently, and very actively, to the entirety of the account. The Inquisitor constantly and consistently triages the available information, presented iteratively by Tracker and presumably after other surviving characters have already provided their testimony. The Inquisitor presses on, using simple then more complex methods to earn more of Tracker’s tale.

The Inquisitor is rewarded for these efforts with the whole of Tracker’s story.

“I know the thought that just ran through you. And all stories are true.
Above us is a roof.”

BL,RW is beautiful prose. But no, that statement is an inaccuracy. BL,RW is a beautiful monologue - and I did find myself imagining “hearing” much of this book rather than “seeing” it. There are some bits of dialogue: pacing, humor, tension - which were exceptionally well done as imagining they were all spoken aloud.

BL,RW is beautiful fantasy. It is not the “safe” pixie-dust-laden fantasy of Disney adaptations. It starts with an analog of the darkest Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales (you know, where children learn that in life there are absolutes and if you break a specific rule you will wake up dead) and proceeds to dial them to 11. There is danger in the waters, there is danger in the jungles, there is danger in the cities, there is danger in the fields. There. Are. No. Safe. Spaces. In. This. World. That amplitude of danger, ironic against the backdrop knowledge that Tracker, by narrating the story, is known to survive all perils, makes our real world seem all the more inviting and safe.

BL,RW is a beautiful mystery. If George R. R. Martin flirts with the “unreliable narrator” concept, then Marlon James has strode up to it at a bar, chatted it up, made out in the adjacent alley, only to introduce it to his parents at brunch the next morning. We know that Tracker relates several mis-truths to the Inquisitor. We know that the Inquisitor has more information than that available to us. We know that Tracker, even while telling his story, will annotate who he did or did not believe then.

And who he does or does not believe now, in the telling.

The plot and structure of BL,RW are gussied up to look like a cheap fantasy/action thriller, but trust me: it’s a slow-burn of a complex fantasy/mystery. There might be readers put off by the tenor/tone/style of the account. Not all books are for all people. If, with my explanation that their inclusion is inherently justified as a tactic used by a hostile witness versus a prosecutor, you can read past the profanity and violence, I believe you will be rewarded by an extremely complex puzzle-box of a story which might just keep you thinking until Book 2 (Moon Witch, Night Devil) is released (expected, with hope, by December 2021). If cussin, killin, and {magic runes/demonic possession/traveling doors} are in your wheelhouse, then, truth? I don’t know why you’re still reading this review. Buy it already. Join the library wait-queue. Read this book.

You cannot push the person who jumped.”

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