on black leopard, red wolf

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.

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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.

17 thoughts on “on black leopard, red wolf

    1. He’s definitely an excellent speaker. The more I hear James talk about the trilogy, the more interesting I find it. It seems like the kind of series that’s so packed with allusions, foreshadowing, subtle details, etc., that each read is different.

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  1. I didn’t know you were connected with the Lambda folks! How did that relationship start? I only learned about them a few years ago, I’m ashamed to say. I’ve read books by EE Charlton-Trujillo and Susan Stinson, both winners of Lambda Awards.

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    1. I’ve been a fan of the website for some time, and late last year I connected with them about reviewing and thankfully it’s all worked out from there. Both authors seem interesting, and your review of Fat Angie’s inspired me to add it to my list. I don’t read much YA, but it seems well written and fresh.

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    1. Interested in knowing your thoughts should you ever have the chance to read it! Was there anything in particular that bothered you about Seven Killings? I’ve heard it’s fairly challenging as well.

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      1. I don’t think it was the fault of the book. I kept putting it down and letting too much time go by in between reading so I never knew what was going on.

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  2. This sounds like a worthwhile read. I love challenging books, but I am not a big fan of narratives that incorporate different interlinked stories, so I am still on the fence with this one. Bu then again I have heard of A Brief History of Seven Killings and its famous win, so perhaps I should give it a go.

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    1. You still might like this – each story transitions into the next and there’s a main story arc, but there are lots of detours and digressions in the plot. I’d be really interested in your thoughts should you ever read some of James’ work, whether this or Seven Killings.

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    1. Ah, I hadn’t thought of it as picaresque, but you’re exactly right – the rough hero, acerbic wit, meandering plot, etc. Great observation, have you finished it yet?

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      1. Yeah, I read it a month or two ago and was THOROUGHLY engrossed by it for a week – I genuinely resented the time I had to spend away from it doing things like going to work and eating meals.

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    1. Thanks so much! Hope you fall into the camp of readers who enjoy the book. I’m definitely interested to see where the series goes after this – James is a great storyteller.

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