Review: Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (The Dark Star Trilogy #1)


ARC received from the publisher on Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

This has been one of the most hyped and anticipated fantasy releases of 2019. Literary fantasy set in Africa? Yes please. I wanted it so much and couldn’t believe my luck getting an early copy. The first few pages were wonderful. But, ultimately, as a long-time fantasy reader, I was left underwhelmed and disappointed.

I saw that I was still a boy. There were men stronger, and women too. There were men wiser, and women too. There were men quicker, and women too. There was always someone or some two or some three who will grab me like a stick and break me, grab me like wet cloth, and wring everything out of me. And that was just the way of the world. That was the way of everybody’s world. I who thought he had his hatchets and his cunning, will one day be grabbed and tossed and thrown in with garbage, and beaten and destroyed. I am the one who will need saving, and it’s not that someone will come and save me, or that nobody will, but that I will need saving, and walking forth in the world in the shape and step of a man meant nothing.

(quote taken from the ARC, subject to change upon publication)

The worldbuilding is, without a question, amazing and seems well-researched. The tribes kingdoms, different mythological creatures…it definitely stands out in the sea of mostly European-inspired fantasy. Anyone looking for African-inspired specifically, for non-standard, or for books with a cast that includes multiple gay (and bisexual?) men will likely find it a treat.

The prose, no complaints there either. It’s somewhat dense, stylistic, and requires slower reading, but to me, that’s not unexpected with epic fantasy, so it didn’t bother me. The perspective is first person throughout, with a framing device of the protagonist, Tracker, telling the story of the search for the lost child to an unknown inquisitor. This works rather well, and the ending is conclusive to the point of making me wonder if the sequel will switch to a different character, different style.

But while the book tries to combine litfic and fantasy, it doesn’t really succeed as either. The pacing is disjointed and uneven – there were a few chapters I enjoyed and couldn’t put down, but a lot of the time, it dragged. The quest itself doesn’t start until nearly a third in, it generally meanders, and especially near the ending, the pacing was a mess. It’s batshit, and while I usually use “what the fuck did I just read” as a positive descriptor, I’m not so sure here. The main plot twist was very predictable – odd in a book that otherwise doesn’t as much defy as ignore convention – and the secondary characters flat.

Tracker himself reminds me somewhat of Karsa from The Malazan Book of the Fallen, with a similar immunity to magic and a similar arrogant attitude, with the addition of mouthing off at people and disliking it when they fire back. And a dash of misogyny (if it helps, he is eventually called out on that, multiple times). All of this did not exactly endear him to me. I liked that he was a clearly unreliable narrator, narration filtered through and coloured by someone’s subjective perception rather than having a glass window of a protagonist is always interesting, but Tracker’s simply not very likable, and his motivations seemed unclear. For most of the book, it seems he decided to go on the quest and did the things he did just because. Because he had nothing better to do, because the plot required it, because why the hell not. It does turn out it’s not quite so eventually, but it’s quite hard to see and never really spelled out.

Part of why I didn’t like it is entirely a matter of taste, too: I dislike dark books. And this is probably one of the darkest books I read, both in terms of bleakness and violence. The world is quite a shit place, especially for women – the book is very male-oriented, there aren’t many female characters in the first place…and it took quite a long time before a woman who wasn’t beaten or raped or killed appeared – though the male characters don’t exactly have it easy either. People die early and marry young. There’s a lot of what I can only describe as “weird sex” if I want to avoid spoilers, a few very disturbing scenes, rape, gang rape, borderline bestiality, murder, graphic violence of all kinds, and I wasn’t aware what exactly I’m getting into, so it took me a bit by surprise. It’s not entirely humourless, there were moments where I had to laugh out loud as well, but the general impression is far from sunny.

Will it one-handedly save the fantasy genre as some other early reviewers say? Honestly, no. Apart from the setting and the style, it falls apart in too many places and never quite reaches its potential. Neither is it the first book of its kind. But 1) if it leads to more African-inspired fantasy, all the better, and 2) if you like grimdark, unreliable narrator, and have a good stomach, it could be worth a try. Maybe.

Enjoyment: 3/5
Execution: 3.5/5

Recommended to: grimdark fans, literary fantasy fans, those looking for original settings…but mostly to grimdark fans
Not recommended to: those who want likable protagonists and female characters, anyone looking for a smooth read, content warning: everything from rape to abuse to kind of bestiality to scenes involving parasites, etc.

9 thoughts on “Review: Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (The Dark Star Trilogy #1)”

  1. I have been wondering about this book; I am sorry to hear that the pacing was disjointed and that you found the main twist to be predictable. I don’t read a lot of grimdark and it isn’t my favorite, so I don’t know that this is for me. Thanks for the review!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. hm I’ve heard a lot about this one lately. I do like dark books, but tbqh a lot of the things you mention seem pretty par for the course in medieval/historical fantasy so not really all that appealing? so I’ll give it props for diversity but probably take a pass on this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hahahaha, dammit, couldn’t resist the gossip I suppose 😂🍿 The popcorn must flow!

      Thanks! Yeah, it might be a divisive book. I’m not sure if I would have picked it up if I saw a review saying what I said before reading it either…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve heard of this book and although it looks really interesting – I mean, fantasy set in Africa? Yes yes yes – but I’ve also heard bad things – which makes me sad and not wanting to read it that much.

    I’m a huge sucker for good worldbuilding – like give me all the intricate worlds and worlds run by magic and just fantasy worlds in general.

    But I do like the idea of this book leading to more African fantasy – there’s always room for more fantasy on a bookshelf.

    Liked by 1 person

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