BLACK LEOPARD, RED WOLF, by Marlon James. Riverhead, 620 pp., $30.
Sometimes, just the first line of a novel is enough to suggest how great it’s going to be. To take the most obvious example, “Call me Ishmael” reverberates through two centuries as a deceptively unassuming entrance into “Moby Dick’s” tempestuous universe of oceangoing obsession and dread.
Two sentences of similar pithiness and import begin “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” Marlon James’ epic fantasy set in a multifaceted, dreamlike version of the ancient African continent:
“The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.”
This opener is all at once a specter, a tease and an enigma. It is a coy trickster climbing into your head, both warning you of and luring you into a maelstrom of sweeping adventure, horrific violence, rococo eroticism and supernatural visions steeped in folklore.
If, for instance, you know before encountering those sentences that the plot of “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” involves the search for a missing child, then you might wonder why Marlon James is spoiling things at the outset.
But James isn’t spoiling anything at all. For it becomes apparent as you let his book envelop your senses that the harsh, melancholy voice that will guide you through unspeakable terror and profligate wonder may not be altogether reliable in unspooling his life’s story to an inquisitor. That part about “nothing left to know”? Fat chance.
This speaker goes by the name of Tracker, a mercenary with “one eye that is mine and one that is not.” But however much Tracker’s mismatched eyes attract immediate attention, it is his nose that wins him both his name and reputation for hunting down and retrieving lost or straying souls, whether they’re wives fleeing abusive husbands or thieves seeking cover. His best friend (and sometime lover) is a similarly accomplished — if far more dangerous — freelance warrior named Leopard, who can transform himself whenever he wishes into a predatory jungle cat.
It’s Leopard’s fault that Tracker, who prefers to work solo, is asked by Amadu Kasawura , “lion of the lower mountain and master of men,” to pool their exotic talents and find a strange young boy who has been missing for three years. Tracker’s distaste for slavers isn’t the only reason for his initial reluctance: Whatever trail there is, in his view, has already gone cold. There’s also no ransom, no word, no clues at all, just a trail of dead bodies and deeper, more foreboding silence. “Just as I wish him to be found,” Amadu tells them, “surely there are those who wish him to stay hidden.”
Riddles even more obscure than this accumulate along Tracker’s odyssey the way barnacles cling to a ship’s hull. With and without Leopard alongside him, Tracker painstakingly picks up the trail of the missing boy, a trail that takes him over several years through thick forests and barren deserts; wandering great cities and tiny villages; scaling mountain peaks and burrowing through byzantine libraries; getting swept up by treacherous waterways and, at times, even the mercurial skies overhead.
The travails encountered along the way are likewise varied and come from vampires, witches, thieves, hyenas, trickster monkeys and many other fantastic beings. Tracker faces such perils with a motley entourage that at various times includes Sadogo, a gentle giant who doesn’t like being called a giant; and a noble, sagacious buffalo who doesn’t talk but understands human inquiries better in some ways than other humans do.
James’ shrewd conjuring of such beings, as well as the tribulations they face, demonstrates rich imagination and supple ingenuity. This shouldn’t surprise those who read his earlier novels, most especially the 2015 Man Booker Prize-winning “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” which explored events surrounding the attempted 1976 murder of reggae superstar Bob Marley through several perspectives with deep empathy and compelling style. The writing in “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” is infused throughout with similar lyricism and a jolting intensity that makes even the landscapes seem like living personages.
The first installment of a planned Dark Star Trilogy, “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” is already being hyped as a black “Game of Thrones.” But such a comparison diminishes James’ innovative infusion of an African setting and an allusive, wide-ranging storytelling reminiscent of African griot tradition. When he’s done, James may not only raise the stakes of the fantasy genre but also help reinvent the nature of narrative fiction.