Far from an epic tale about battling kingdoms, Black Leopard, Red Wolf offers a nuanced portrayal of the intimate bond between the two eponymous queer Black heroes.
The novel is Jamaican author Marlon James’s fourth. It begins The Dark Star Trilogy, in which each installment will address the same set of events from a different character’s perspective; it follows up James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, which described the killing of Bob Marley from seven different viewpoints and won the Booker Prize in 2015. Both novels construct a world in which truth is “a shifting, slithering thing.”
Full of violence, suspense, and mystery, Black Leopard, Red Wolf charts the adventures of an unforgettable pair of mercenaries as they hunt for a lost boy. Taking place in a fictional continent based on Iron Age Africa, the colossal, six-part tale hybridizes fantasy, historical fiction, and epic. In terse but intricately constructed prose, Tracker, or “Red Wolf,” recounts not just his quest to find the missing boy but also his own coming of age, lineage, romances, and more.
The novel reads as a collection of interlocked stories set in a civilization in crisis, populated by troubled mercenaries, unforgiving elites, and fantastical creatures; as blood soaked and sensational as the plot is, it centers on the intimate bond between the two eponymous Black heroes, Red Wolf and Black Leopard, as they struggle to survive, communicate, and love in an era beset by armed conflict and social tension.
Reactions to the book have been polarized, with many faulting it for being too ambiguous and difficult to read, but the story seems disorienting by design and plot points become easier to grasp as the novel unfolds. Expansive and inventive, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is inexpressibly compelling, largely because of the arduous reading experience it offers, and the trilogy it begins seems sure to become a genre-bending classic.
I read and reviewed the book for Lambda Literary, where my full review can be found.