When I first heard that Marlon James, author of A Brief History of Seven Killings, announced he was sick of arguing there should be a black hobbit and was writing his own Africa-inspired fantasy series, I was thrilled. Not simply due to the change of setting, all-too typically western Europe-inspired in the genre, but because I often bemoan the lack of ambitious, well-written prose in fantasy. It’s often basic and obvious and uninspiring. I already knew James was a great writer so this wouldn’t be an issue.
Years later, it finally arrived. And… well… at first, I was mighty disappointed. The initial hundred pages of this book are not good. We’re introduced to our first person protagonist, Tracker, a man with a magical nose, who is in prison being interrogated about events of the recent past. The novel is Tracker relating to his inquisitors what actually happened over the past few years: a quest to find a lost boy that spins wildly out of control.
I will start by comparing this book to Game of Thrones, despite Roxane Gay’s top Goodreads review saying not to, due to both books’ extremely brutal nature. How can you not compare Black Leopard to the series that popularized an entire sub genre of physically and sexually violent works? GoT brought us worlds that were highly reactionary to the heroic fantasy of the past. It’s hard to think that something that is as endlessly, horrifically, eye-rollingly violent (while still trying to be cool) as Black Leopard would exist without Martin’s success.
Even if I’m wrong about that, I’m still going to make a GoT comparison. The reason Martin’s books work for me and many dark fantasies afterward didn’t (including the GoT TV show!) is because while violent and grim, the novels are not without hope. They begin as a family drama; we are introduced to characters we care about, whom we want to protect from the miserable worlds they inhabit. The sex and violence is not the focus. Black Leopard begins by describing a similarly miserable world (in spirit if not substance) except I’m given no reason to care. Great violence is visited on Tracker, but he visits violence on others on the slightest whim. Also, it’s clear from the start that he hates women (more on that later). As a reader, there’s little to emotionally latch on to. We literally have characters announcing to each other “Nobody loves no one”. Might as well be an accurate statement in this world. I almost put the book down.
But I kept at it! And began to care. I can’t even give you a good reason why. More characters were introduced, all terrible people, but compelling. The plot itself picked up. Why was Tracker hunting this mysterious boy? Who was he? I also came to appreciate the writing itself, more and more. It’s heavily repetitious but eventually I found myself repeating Tracker’s signature ‘Fuck the gods!’ along with him. I also enjoyed the dialect, especially the way the various monsters or Sogolon the Witch speaks. Eventually, we’re introduced to Tracker’s soon-to-be lover, Mossi, and he becomes the beating heart of the novel, able to see the good in our hero, even when we, the reader inside his head, can not.
I want to put a good word in for the monsters lurking in the forests and jungles of James’ imagination. Demons that run on the ceiling. Hideously deformed men with bat wings or too-long arms or bird feet, reeking of dead flesh. Baby-stealing witches supping on fresh organs. I like a good monster and there’s plenty here. They’re scary and well realized and possess the right amount of a camp. I feel like a good barometer of whether or not you’ll like this book is: do you find a giant spider-man that shoots impenetrable web-cum from his spider-dick to be offensive and stupid or hilarious and creepy (and yes, a little stupid)? When, towards the end, one of the monstrous villains declares:
They think my brother like the flesh and I like the blood, but I eat anything.
The same fearful grin I wore as a way-too-young child watching the horror movie House suddenly blossomed.
The non-monster violence never meshed with me. Our main characters are able to best dozens of armed men single handedly. Limbs pop off like champagne corks. There’s a lame magic cliche that allows Tracker to pull off such a feat. It’s a fantasy trope I dislike. I suppose you can see it more as a metaphorical device for his rage to “kill the whole world”. Regardless, Tracker’s near invincibility lowers the stakes in otherwise tense situations. There are also MULTIPLE situations where Tracker is captured and strung up by some beast or creep or another and then suddenly wakes up free of them with no explanation. What the hell is that about?
I mentioned earlier Tracker has a problem with women. He does, partially by narrative design. Mossi calls him on this and he attempts some reconciliations but it’s unconvincing. The text itself doesn’t help. Women are kept at arm’s length throughout the novel and the most important ones are diabolical schemers, ready to dispose of Tracker (or anyone else) for their own personal, matriarchal power. While I liked the conclusion of the plot, it leaves further uncomfortable questions about women and power.
In summary: Monsters = good, prose = good, plot = pretty good, likeable characters = hella low, violence = uneven and often bad, misogyny = bad, too-long prologue = bad, me = ready for the next one.