Book Review: Black Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon James ★★★★

“We don’t own truth. Truth is truth and nothing you can do about it even if you hide it, or kill it, or even tell it. It was truth before you open your mouth and say, That there is a true thing.”

I am not one to usually give trigger warnings, because honestly I just forget to and generally mention it in my review anyway, but for this book:

Trigger warnings: LITERALLY ALL OF THEM. Yes, even that one. And that one! Oh you thought that would never be allowed in a book?? Well it’s in here!

Sooo I’m gonna be honest with you guys. I really liked this book. A lot! But, I would definitely hesitate before recommending it to anyone I know in real life 😅. It is SO DARK. I am having such a hard time rating it, too. The story and the writing and the characterization – all phenomenal. But some of the subject matter is wildly violent and disturbing…..Yeahhhh, I’m still gonna go 4.5 stars, I think. It was really good, okay! Don’t @ me!

This was, without a doubt, one of the most unique and exciting books I have read in a really long time. I think part of my enjoyment came from not really knowing what to expect going into it. I pretty much picked this one up completely blind, thanks to my library not having Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik in stock 😂. Before reading BLRW, all I knew about it was that it was adult fantasy and it was inspired by African mythology. I had seen the cover on Daniel Greene’s Youtube channel where he ranked it in his cover tiers (great fantasy channel btw). Yeah, it was a cool-looking cover. And I guess that was enough for me! I picked it up to read on a 7 hour car ride and I was definitely not disappointed (even if I did tilt the book away from my passengers at times).

I was hooked from the first two sentences: “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.” That’s a freaking great start to book like holy crap. Who is this child and why he dead??? I need to know. I also love how the book starts with our main protagonist, Tracker, telling all of this to an Inquisitor, as he is being held captive, tortured, and tried for murder. The entire novel then, is him telling the Inquisitor about his life and his journey to save this child. The cyclical nature of the storytelling and how it comes full circle in the end is really masterfully done. Some of the choices the author made really shocked me; they were so organic and unique. Nothing about this book was predictable. I was floored by certain outcomes, truly feeling the emotions the author bled into his work. Who would think a book at times so vile, could also be so moving, meaningful, and tender??? Brilliant, brilliant job.

The prose was at times very simple, and other times hard to get through, not because it was dense, but because half the characters talked in riddles or sly turns-of-phrase. The entire first 150 pages of the novel reads like a hallucinatory fever-dream. It is a little tough to get into for that reason, after that amazing hook, but after that 150 page mark, I absolutely flew through all 620 pages of it. The author is descriptive, rich and lush, but never boring. I felt engrossed and captivated the entire time. I know some people have described the prose as akin to classic fantasy writers, such as Tolkien, and I do see that some. However, there is a certain readability to James’ writing that feels a bit more modern. Honestly, I think the writing and dialogue and character depth feels new and fresh, but the actual structure of the story is similar to old epics like the Odyssey or Beowulf. It is very different for the fantasy genre and very cool. I really enjoyed that.

Speaking of characters, I LOVED Tracker as our protagonist and (sometimes unreliable) narrator. He is dry, he is cynical, he is downright hilarious at times, he is troubled, but overall, well at least for the first 2/3’s of the book, he is good. In a harsh, brutal, violent, misogynistic world, he is a defender of the innocent and the helpless. I have seem some reviewers say that Tracker is just as bad as all of the other evil characters, but I don’t think so. I think James wrote him to be an in-between kind of soul. He is at once a warrior and a lover, a man and a woman (evidenced by his dwelling on being circumcised), an abuser and a victim. Part of this is his personal struggle with his family, his identity, his sexuality, his masculinity, his belief, and what the truth is in the end. It was written SO WELL. He sees past the parts of the world that everyone else has accepted as true and questions them. He asks why women are treated so poorly, why children are forsaken, why is this the way of the world and why can’t it be changed. He defends them against the evils of the world, even if he does it begrudgingly at times. This makes him a wonderful, complex antihero. He also has such an amazing character arc throughout the story. His character growth is fantastic and it is done so subtlety, without being shoved in your face.

The other characters are equally as fleshed out, authentic, and individualized. I was surprised, when I first began reading, how much I genuinely began to care for some of the characters. Other than Tracker, I really loved Sadogo and Mossi. They were great. Mossi and Tracker and the Mingi children!!! My heart 😭. I liked Leopard a lot, as well, but he was much more of grey character. I have heard that the author is turning this into a trilogy, but instead of three separate installments, each book will be the same story, told from a different perspective. If this is the case, I definitely think Leopard will have one of the books and maybe Sogolon, the witch. Or Nyka. Who knows! I just know I’ll be reading it.

I think it is important to point out, as well, that there is a ginormous array of diversity and representation here (you know, alongside all of the rape and murder 😬). We have homosexual characters, bisexual characters, physically disabled characters, survivors of abuse, adoptive parents, and more, I’m sure. The entire cast is either black, Middle Eastern, or a mythical creature. There are kings and queens, both equally insane and evil though. It’s amazing! I have never read a book steeped completely in African folklore and mythology like this one, and it was really eye-opening. I absolutely loved that aspect of it. And I might find it a tad amusing that people are going to have such a struggle deciding to “cancel” this book or not. Like gah!! It’s so representative (the author himself is a gay black man), but so violent! *shakes fist* Don’t hate me lol! It’s just an intriguing conversation to be had, I think.

Ok, about the violence. Is this book considered grimdark?? I don’t even know. I’ve never read one before, but this is what I imagine grimdark is like. Oh god, what does that say about me that I liked this book so much?! As you can see, I really enjoyed this book. I want to own it, I want to read more from this author, I want to continue the trilogy. I almost gave it 5 stars! And still, I thought a lot of the violence and sexuality was unnecessary, gratuitous, and callous. I DO NOT think the author himself is callous about it, just that he wrote it in a way that was very nonchalant in order to highlight the world the characters were living in. I get it. The ones who are raping, murdering, and using slurs, are all the bad guys. The homophobia, cruelty, racism, and misogyny all stems from the evil characters that we are not supposed to like. It proves a point. The blatant sexuality on every single page is a little less clear to me (why is everything related to buttholes or penises or fucking???), but I did read something about that being a part of African folklore in general. Correct me if I am wrong, because I might be very wrong about that 🤷‍♀️ . That being said, I still found parts of the story very disturbing and hard to read. I think some of it could have been taken out, without losing anything integral to the story.

The ending of BLRW, as I’ve said, was literally so amazing. I was freaking out the whole time, for the last 1/3rd of the book for sure. It does end with a tinge of nihilism that I found just delicious, but others might not love so much. It is a pretty bleak, ambiguous ending that does not do much to actually give closure on big events, such as the revolution, the king’s bloodline, or the entire “purpose” of the book, the child. I, however, loved it. I feel like all three books in the trilogy will give us a rounded-out and complete story, but who knows!? James is so unpredictable and clever, I don’t even know what to expect for the next two books. But, I’m here for it.

So good! I just want to riddle my review with quotes. But I won’t, cause self control ammiright?

Wait, I want to be able to change into a human.

Thank you for reading and please please let me know what you guys think of this one!!! I feel like it is already so polarizing.

Title: Black Leopard Red Wolf
Author: Marlon James
Genre: Adult Fantasy | Mythology and Folklore – African | Fiction | Epic | Grimdark?
Publication Date: February 5th, 2019
Page Count: 620
Buy It:  Book Depository Wordery

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