5 Tips for Reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
1. Read one of Marlon James's other novels before this one. Probably his Booker-winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. I did not do this, and I think it would have been helpful to have some experience in his unique style and tone, heavy on the descriptions, zillions of characters flitting in and out, and everyone speaking to each other in riddles. I love the dialogue, it's clever and sneaky-funny, but you have to be paying attention closely to get all the jokes and callbacks.
2. Block off a month to read this. Surprise, I also did not do this. I was too excited and borrowed it from the library. There's so many side characters and flashbacks, I had to flip back to the list of characters and to previous scenes in the book to recall who was who and what happened when. Towards the end, when the due date for returning the book was hovering dangerously close, I stopped flipping back because I didn’t have time to figure out where I lost the plot. So I got confused. I think this book needed to be edited down drastically. There’s a great deal of pages dedicated to, for example, Tracker’s childhood or the time he spent in Dolingo that has hardly any bearing on the plot. While on the other hand, there’s also clearly a bunch that did get edited out, like Tracker’s days with the mingi children. As the novel goes on, we’re told Tracker cares for these kids like they’re his own, but I really didn’t see any evidence of that in the text. I know Marlon James is a long-winded writer, so I can only assume that there’s plenty of scenes that would have illuminated many things for me, but those scenes were cut.
3. Forget every comparison to Game of Thrones. This is nothing like it. There's a plot point that is similar to one in Game of Thrones, but really, the comparison is disingenuous. Personally, I think this is for people who love literary fiction, not for people who read epic fantasy series. In fantasy like Game of Thrones, you’re reading the book for the political machinations, power struggles between characters, and intense action scenes, and the plot is front and center. In this novel, the plot is barely there and character motivations are weak, basically amounting to the characters going, well, why not? It definitely seems like Marlon James just added the flimsiest amount of plot and character development in order to showcase his imagination. That being said, James writes so well. It definitely feels more like a survey of myths than a fantasy novel. There’s shapeshifters, witches, anti-witches, cannibalistic creatures, demented White Scientists, mutilated lightning vampires, and much more. If you sit back and enjoy the ride without worrying too much about how it's all going to play out, it's very good. Just pretend that the plot doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t seem to matter to the characters.
4. Prepare to be disgusted. This is an incredibly violent book, from well-written scenes of action to torture and rape. Many of the awful creatures James has thought up are disturbing, but to be fair, I like that type of imaginative thinking. It's interesting because Game of Thrones features a ton of rape, but the effects are rarely shown. James is not going to write "and then x number of women were raped" and leave it at that. If a character is raped, you see the horrible consequences firsthand, and feel the emotional impact. Is it extremely distressing to read things like this? Yes, of course. But we should feel distressed when reading about rape and torture, it shouldn't be listed like a statistic.
Tracker's got a good sniffer, and you'll be reading about every single smell he smells. Which can be, and often is, really gross. But you know, if he's got to smell it, then we do too.
5. Be very into dicks. Okay, maybe I'm being too snarky here. I love that this has queer characters, what a breath of fresh air, right? The flirtation, the jealousy, and the sex, I am all here for. But do I really need to know every time Tracker's got a boner? No, no I do not. My limit for caring about what men's dicks are doing was up in like 2007. Tracker is also a misogynist, which he gets called out for by one of my favorite characters. He's got mommy issues which seem to make him hate every woman he comes across, but to tell you the truth, there weren't really any positive female characters in this book. The Sangoma with the mingi children maybe? I hope that James will feature better female characters in the next novels in the series.
Tl;dr: I can see why some people love and adore this book. I can equally see why someone would loathe this book. I fall somewhere in the middle. James is a fantastic writer, but there’s also a ton of flaws and plotholes in this. Put another way, it’s not the best thing since sliced bread, but it’s entertaining enough. Hopefully, with my tips, you can properly prepare yourself for what to expect in Black Leopard, Red Wolf.