Book review: An ‘African Game of Thrones’

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James; reviewed by Michael DeKoven of the Port Moody Public Library.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the newest book from Mann Booker Prize-winning author Marlon James, is a fantasy novel with a difference.

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The book draws on African folklore, so rather than the typical European ogres and elves and trolls, the work features creatures like the impundulu (or lighting bird), the vampire-like Sasabonsam and the fantastically deformed children know as mingi.

James joked that he wanted to write an African Game of Thrones and it certainly meets that standard in terms of violence and explicit sexuality.

The writing is beautiful but dense and quirky, and this, combined with a narrative that jumps around in time, makes for a disorienting and uncomfortable read at first.

In spite of this, the story wormed its way into my head after a hundred pages or so.

The story is largely narrated in fragments and flashbacks by a man known as Tracker who is under investigation for the murder of a child.

Years earlier, Tracker was part of a group hired to find the boy, who had gone missing under mysterious circumstances.

The members of the group, who come and go as the quest progresses, include a shape-shifting Leopard (Tracker’s former lover), a giant, an intelligent buffalo and Tracker’s future lover Mossi, a perfect soldier who “smells of myrrh.”

As in any good quest story, a number of wicked characters and monsters are also searching for the boy and will do anything to stop Tracker’s group from finding him first.

In the group’s search, it travels through lush and hypnotic jungles, visits a vertical city where houses are built on top of one another, battles practitioners of macabre “white science” in the tree city of Dolingo and is enchanted for a month in the mysterious and dangerous Darklands.

As the searchers travel, they hear (or tell each other) a number of stories about who the boy is and the circumstances of his disappearance, with each contradicting the other.

In the end, Tracker has to question the very nature of truth and deceit.

Reviews on Amazon and on Good Reads demonstrate that this is not a book that everyone will enjoy but if you have the patience (and the stomach) for it, you will likely find it a rewarding read. 

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