Black Leopard Red Wolf (BLRW) draws from African history, mythology, and religion to present an incredible tale of fantasy and myth. In the lead up to BLRW’s release, Marlon James called his Dark Star trilogy the “African Game of Thrones.”
There are indeed similarities. Both stories feature complex networks of characters and places, and there is enough violence, sex, and intrigue to match Game of Thrones. However, BLRW is a different kind of story in many ways. Our narrator tells us up front that, “Not everything the eye sees should be spoken by the mouth.” In other words, he has no reason to tell us the whole truth. It is up to the reader to decide what to believe, which is a very African way of hearing a story*.
Allow me to explain. BLRW’s narrator is Tracker, a hunter known far and wide for his skill. People say that he “has a nose,” and that he can follow a scent through any terrain no matter how far it travels. But we find Tracker at the start of the novel in a prison being interrogated by an inquisitor about the death of a boy who might have been heir to an empire. A boy Tracker and eight others were hired to find. And Tracker, a queer man who has a smart mouth to go with his nose, has quite a bit to say about what happened.
His story intensifies as you read, in ways that will be both familiar and strange to fantasy readers. It’s classic fantasy, but with sharply African twists. He tells us of the people he worked with, characters like the Leopard and the Moon-Witch, who drop in and out of the story. He speaks of the monsters that try to prevent them from finding the boy, such as the bultungin, or werehyenas, and an impundulu, a vampiric lightning bird. He evocatively describes places like Dolingo, the grand but subtly creepy treetop city, or the Darklands, a forest where one can lose much but gain little. And there is so much more I can’t describe here.
I will admit that I began reading BLRW with the beautiful physical book, but finished with the excellently narrated audiobook. I knew very little about African myths and traditions before reading/listening to this, but whichever version you read is worth the effort. Future books in this trilogy will feature other members of the group hired to find the boy. Book two, Moon Witch Night Devil, tells the story from the moon-witch’s perspective. She disappears about halfway through BLRW only to reappear near the end, so stay tuned, she may know something Tracker did not.
*Interviews with James about the story’s African influences: