Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf is one of those novels that I’m not going to be able to do justice to. Because so it’s an African epic fantasy novel, right, but when you say that, it’s easy to think “Tolkien or Martin or whatever, except in Africa.” But it’s not that; it’s dense and layered and literary and subtle in ways that remind me of nothing so much as a Gene Wolfe novel.
And the thing about novels like this is, I’m bad at reading them. When there are stories nested in stories nested in stories, when there are unreliable narrators… well, the thing is, I’m not always up to reading something dense and challenging, right. So when I’m reading this kind of book, I’ll go read some comic books with breakfast instead, and so it takes me forever to read it, and because I’m interweaving it with like a month’s worth of Marvel comics, I end up missing things or taking events too superficially.
But all that said… dang, this is really good. I rarely read the book jacket/blurb stuff before I read a book, and so without the prompt that this was an epic fantasy, it’s not immediately obvious what James is doing at first—it starts off with a framing story, but then jumps into earlier parts of the protagonist’s life, with a sort of coming of age, and things about family—but it eventually becomes clear at some point that this is, nominally, a quest fantasy that follows some familiar genre patterns. Except sorta also not really. I don’t want to go too hard on this Gene Wolfe comparison—James’ writing is a lot funnier and more earthy than Wolfe’s cool, distant tone—but you know how Wolfe’s Wizard Knight series was supposed to be his foray into straight-up epic fantasy, except that it totally wasn’t? Yeah, it’s like that.
So yeah, this is a dense novel with a lot going on; it’s got a distinctive African mythology that it’s working with, it’s got great characters who are tragic and funny and horny, and the writing is evocative and distinctive. This kind of dense literary novel is the type where I often end up saying, “I respected it, but I didn’t like it,” but in this case, I actually did like it a lot, too. It’s definitely not a light read, so pick it up when you’re ready to give it some attention… but do pick it up.
Also, I didn’t know this when I read it, but apparently this is the first book of a whole friggin’ trilogy, and according to an interview with James, “The thing is, the next novel is somebody else’s eyewitness testimony, and their first remark is, ‘Everything you read before is not true.’” So, uh, yeah, getting back into these in detail years apart is going to be a challenge. But I’m up for it, eventually. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the intersection of literary fiction and epic fantasy.