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BookBrowse Reviews Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

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Black Leopard, Red Wolf

The Dark Star Trilogy

by Marlon James

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James X
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2019, 640 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2020, 640 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Natalie Vaynberg
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In the first novel of the Dark Star trilogy, myth and history come together when a tracker is hired to find a missing child.

If you are looking for an indulgent, escapist fantasy, Black Leopard, Red Wolf may not be for you. Marlon James has built quite a world. It is vivid, kaleidoscopic and strange, but it is not for the faint of heart. Instead it is complex, challenging and sometimes downright scary.

If you do choose to embark on this trek, you'll meet Tracker, a man "with a nose." His nose can sniff out anyone, anywhere, whether they be living or dead. Give him a scrap to sniff and he will not rest until he finds whoever it is he is tasked with locating. His talents are widely known and frequently get him into trouble. His latest trouble comes in the form of a job - he is hired, by a wealthy man, to find a boy who was stolen. Who this boy is, why he was stolen or who took him is a mystery. The details of the story change with every telling of it. Yet Tracker is not alone on his journey. He is joined by a shape-shifting man-leopard, a 300-year-old witch, an outcast from an ancient race of giants, and two mercenaries. These would-be rescuers are hardly a united front—jealousies and mistrust mark their every step, extreme danger and violence hounds them—yet together they journey through the vast lands of ancient Africa to fulfill their quest.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is not an easy book. In fact, it takes almost 100 pages to get to the crux of the story. Before that, you are plied with a variety of short, fantastical tales that show you the scope of Tracker's abilities as well as his extreme loneliness. He is a man apart, and not just because of his nose. His family is fractured and dysfunctional, he has a hard time making and keeping friends, and his innate sense of justice leads him into many a violent scuffle. All this is told in Marlon James' tricky, shifting prose, which makes it hard to know who is speaking, who is the hero and who is the villain. It is almost as if the first few chapters are a test to see who is worthy of entrance into the rest of the tale.

Once past this test, however, you are richly rewarded. Drawing deeply on a variety of African myths, Tracker's journey is replete with lands more amazing than any you have ever encountered and monsters that you surely cannot imagine. Each character has a long, often disturbing history that they share, piece by piece, as time goes on. This is truly a story like no other.

Yet the challenge lies not only in the prose. If you do choose to embark on this journey, keep in mind that James explores, with crisp, concise descriptions, many difficult things. Rape, murder and dismemberment are all repeatedly encountered. Not only is this an adults-only book, but it is likely that not every adult will be comfortable with the subject matter.

It is safe to say that Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a most unique novel. Challenging and rewarding, beautiful and grotesque, expansive and deeply personal, it is a work of high talent. Marlon James has brought us a world unlike any we have ever seen. If you are a reader of literary fantasy, an aficionado of the horror genre, or someone who does not shy away from a difficult read, this book will really hit the spot.

Reviewed by Natalie Vaynberg

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in March 2019, and has been updated for the February 2020 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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