Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

blrw_mj

Rating:  ★★★

It has been said, that Tracker has a nose. Other people want Tracker to use that nose to track down missing things, husbands mostly. But then someone asks him to find a boy, but no one will give him a straight answer about why the boy is so important. What he’s wanted for and who wants him. So he gets involved because he’s curious about the truth of things.

I was so excited for this book when I heard about it, that I immediately put it on hold at my library (like 4 months prior to release).  I was first in line.  I picked it up on release day and dove right in, putting aside two other books to commit to this one.  I don’t want to say I’m disappointed- all of the elements I was excited for were there.  African mythology and folklore came in spades.  Varied settings and scenery.  Something new and something fresh.  Black Leopard, Red Wolf has all of those things.

But I don’t know if the story and conclusion I was given, was good enough to outweigh the time and effort I put into reading this to make it feel worth it.  Surely there aren’t enough books like this in the market right now, but I can’t help but think I could have waded through another two or three books with similar elements in the time it took me to read this one.

This is told a lot like a confession. Tracker frequently address the reader as Inquisitor, and it does a really great job of setting up the tone and gives the reader the sense that the book is being told to them out loud. However, I also felt like it made it put far too much emotional distance between the reader and the story itself, and in my opinion it became a detriment to the kind of story being told.

This seems like a good place to mark content warnings, so you might understand what I mean: brutal violence, violence against children, violence against women, slavery, rape, genital mutilation, and general mutilation. This is one of the most violent novels I have read in a long time. When I read Jemisin’s The Fifth Season she had exactly two scenes that I found really disturbing, both involving violence against children.  This book has significantly more and it hardly fazed me. I’m blaming the way the story is told, but I also think it has a lot to do with the way it desensitizes you (maybe that’s the point?).

When you spend 600 pages with a character- you should feel more about them than I did in the end. That’s not to say Tracker isn’t a great character. He is a great character. There were lots of great characters: the Leopard, Sadogo, and most of all Mossi. Someone could write a fascinating thesis on the psychology of Tracker, honestly. And I am really, truly frustrated that I don’t feel more about them than I think I should have. Generally if an author has great characters with great banter (as these often did) that feel human, I’m pretty sold. I don’t really care what they do, and the same was true of this book. I didn’t really care about the boy or what happened to him. In my mind he was sort of an afterthought. (Maybe that’s the problem?) And yet I got to the end and just didn’t feel the impact. I wanted to be ugly crying.  I wanted to feel Tracker’s grief.  Instead I felt a tinge of sadness and moved on.

Aside from that the book was excessively long. Like really fucking long. Like 620 pages long that felt like 1200 pages. On top of length alone it’s really dense. 40 pages chapters are not uncommon. <— This makes me insane. I’d rather you handed me a book with a hundred chapters and 1200 pages than feel like I have to sit and read 40 pages in one go. I often read on my break at work. 15 minutes is not enough time to read one chapter, so I inevitably had to put it down in the middle of something. Not even two breaks was enough to finish one chapter. Sometimes I’d turn a page and the whole page would be one long wall of text that would immediately make my heart sink. So structure was a huge issue for me.  Authors- please stop doing this to your readers.  It’s adding needless frustration.

And aside from length and density, there’s the novel itself which is pretty complex. There’s lots of characters coming and going. It isn’t always made clear who they are and what their purpose is. There are lots of little details to remember. And as if that wasn’t enough there’s tons of circular or riddle-like dialogue that makes the reader feel as if they’ve missed the context.

Other stuff I enjoyed: the scenery and the mythology. I found myself wishing I knew more about African mythology so I could connect to the text in some other way. I think readers with some knowledge of it will go crazy over this book. Every page probably holds some easter egg of information for them. The scenery was set very well (although I think could have been pared back a bit). We see grasslands and jungles, swamps, small villages, big cities. There’s a place called the Darklands which I loved and wished I’d seen more of.

Another thing I loved was the inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters. (In fact I think it was one of my favorite things.) Tracker’s examination of his own sexuality/masculinity was an ongoing theme in the book that I found super interesting. [Minor Spoiler]: And then there’s his relationship with Mossi, which has truly become one of my favorite relationships portrayed in literature.  Mossi is the peanut butter to Tracker’s jelly.  When he is introduced he is so badly needed to break up the darkness of this book.  Tracker in general is just in desperate need of a person who cares about him, and Mossi is that guy.

Just figured I’d mention this too: the hardcover edition of this book is super pretty. The paper is a little glossy. The cover is gorgeous. There are multiple maps to look at and appreciate.

In the end, I’m glad I read it, but I’d be hesitant to recommend it to anyone, and I’m hesitant to even commit to the next book. I suspect that this is a story rehashed multiple times by all the characters involved so we can see how their perceptions change things.  I don’t think the plot of this book is strong enough to support being rehashed multiple times and I don’t think the next character’s POV (it looks like it will be Sogolon) is interesting enough to make me want to read it.  It’s a neat concept- but would work better as one book that was maybe 600 pages long.  Certainly not an 1800+ page trilogy.  That said I do want to know what happens, so I’ll probably look up a summary or a spoilery review or two to piece it together.

9 thoughts on “Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

  1. I had some of the same thoughts as you when reading this. I’ve used one word when talking about this one: Challenging. In length, subject, and writing style. I’m happy I read it, but like you, don’t know if I will continue.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree completely, and for me anyway, it felt needlessly challenging. It didn’t have to have 40 page chapters. The way the chapters were broken up made no sense. There were plenty of double space breaks within the chapters signifying the end of a scene. I frequently questioned why chapters didn’t end with those breaks. It didn’t need to have a full page of text in one endless paragraph. TL;DR kept flashing in my mind as I read this. I wasn’t given enough time to sit and digest the information I had taken in. It was a marathon I felt obligated to sprint.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ha! Love the TL;DR!

        I’d heard of his book about Jamaica and missed it, so thought I’d give this one a try. I was warned about his ‘stream of consciousness’ style. I definitely had to make sure I was in the right mindset to read it. A couple times I picked it up and put it right back down.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Yeah. One of my reading buddies gave it four stars and then said he thought the book earned four stars but he also wouldn’t say he liked it. Interesting dichotomy. I might give it another try someday depending on how the other books are received and if anyone says they add anything new.

    A Brief History of Seven Killings does sound like an awesome idea- but I think that level of violence set in the real world would be too much for me.

    I think James is absolutely brilliant, but his writing style might just be too wordy for me.

    Like

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