Stand aside, Beowulf. There’s a new epic hero slashing his way into our hearts, and we may never get all the blood off our hands.
Marlon James is a Jamaican-born writer who won the 2015 Man Booker Prize for “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” his blazing novel about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley. Now, James is clear-cutting space for a whole new kingdom. “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” the first spectacular volume of a planned trilogy, rises up from the mists of time, glistening like viscera. James has spun an African fantasy as vibrant, complex and haunting as any Western mythology, and nobody who survives reading this book will ever forget it. That thunder you hear is the jealous rage of Olympian gods.
“We tell stories to live,” says Tracker, the indefatigable narrator, who tells a lot of stories but doesn’t let many people live. When the novel opens, Tracker is rotting in a dungeon where he recently stabbed, crushed and blinded his five cellmates. They had it coming — or most of them did — and in any case, it’s a perfect introduction to a lonely hero who will leave behind so many dead bodies over the next 600 pages that this book should be interred instead of shelved.
Thrown out of the house as a teenager, Tracker casts off everything that reminds him of his father — including all clothing. “The lion needs no robe and neither does the cobra,” Tracker announces. “People would look at me with the scorn they save for swamp folk.” Stomping around naked must be good for business, though, because he quickly makes a name for himself as a kind of medieval private investigator. “It has been said that I have a nose,” he admits, but it’s more like a superpower: the ability to track people by their scent over hundreds of miles. He finds missing wives, errant husbands and secret mistresses. It helps that he’s also protected by a spell ensuring that “nothing borne of metal” can cut him.
Tracker’s success eventually gets him an assignment that becomes the novel’s central story line. In a time of cataclysmic political upheaval and rumors of war between competing kingdoms, powerful people want to retrieve a missing boy. Who this boy is, who took him and even who wants him back are questions that remain as mysterious as where the boy might be. Tracker is convinced the child is dead, but the case touches a deep sorrow in him, and he agrees to join a gang of contentious characters who are convinced they can find him.
“Ocean’s Eleven” has got nothing on this ensemble. Tracker’s team includes a reticent buffalo, a witch who rises up from a puddle of oil, an archivist who’s also a master swordsman and a melancholy giant who won’t stop lamenting his kills. But the most endearing of these characters is Tracker’s lover, a man who changes at will into a leopard. He’s a typically feline companion: unpredictably hot or cold. James creates wonderful banter between them, and he’s fearless about exploring the sexuality of these two virile heroes. His Tracker and Leopard are Achilles and Patroclus with more fur and fury. As Leopard exclaims after a night of loud carousing: “Fantastic beasts, fantastic urges.”
Harvesting mythology and fantasy from the rich soil of Africa — from the Anansi tales to the Sundiata Epic and so much more — James hangs a string of awesome adventures on this quest for the missing boy. Tracker and his violent companions explore lush jungles, cities in the sky and a dark forest where the memory of elephants charges through the trees. Dare to enter this realm, and you’ll confront a catalogue of the continent’s creatures: ferocious trolls, giant bats and a bloodsucking fiend made entirely of flies. Clearly, Hollywood special effects are still playing catch-up with the magic our very best fantasy writers can spin. But, frankly, it’s one intimate encounter with a hyena that will haunt your nightmares.
As these bloody stories and their mysteries pile up, I sometimes felt as lost as Tracker does in the woods, despite the inclusion of James’s five hand-drawn maps. About halfway through, when a witch asks, “Who are you that demands that I make things clear to you?,” she could have been screaming directly at me. (A list of characters at the front of the book contains more than 80 names, which is almost more intimidating than clarifying.) But I didn’t much mind the bouts of discombobulation because I was always enchanted by James’s prose with its adroit mingling of ancient and modern tones. (The chapter epigraphs are in the West African language of Yoruba.) He’s constructed this book with the same joints as the old epics: episodes of gripping intensity linked loosely together in an arc that resolves itself only at a distance. Scene by scene, the fights are cinematic spectacles, spellbinding blurs of violence set to the sounds of clanging swords and tearing tendons.
Beneath all these hair-raising fights and chases thrum profound issues of identity and freedom that resonate in our own far less brawny era. It’s particularly fascinating to see James revise the racist palette of Western symbolism. In Tracker’s world, the richest, most gorgeous colors are shades of brown and black, and nothing is more corrupt, more vile and disgusting than the work of the White Scientists. The treatment they subject Tracker to is unspeakable.
Honestly, you’ll want to read “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” wearing a smock. It’s an extraordinarily violent story, including a surfeit of sexual attacks. The ancient world is not a pretty or kind place: Men, women and children are tortured and raped to death. But that only makes Tracker’s concealed tenderness more poignant. Cast out, he feels the pain that all discarded beings feel, especially the littlest and most despised ones. He’d cut out my tongue for saying it, but beneath that impervious exterior is a kind and gentle soul.