The former Booker prize winner's new genre-bending fantasy falls shortby Tim Martin / July 14, 2019 / Leave a comment
Marlon James’s Man Booker-winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings channelled several voices—journalists, henchmen, psychopaths, bystanders—as it took us into the dark heart of 1970s Jamaica and an assassination attempt on Bob Marley. “Dead people,” as its first line observed, “never stop talking.” Seven Killings was a savage, intense and highly unusual book, but if you were asked to predict what its author would do next, your first guess probably wouldn’t be an epic fantasy about a magical axe-wielding people-hunter called Tracker, and his buddy, a Hawkeye-like archer who can turn into a leopard.
But Black Leopard, Red Wolf is just that: a sprawling novel set in an ancient world based on African folklore, which follows a band of supernaturally augmented mercenaries (and a helpful buffalo called “The Buffalo”) as they search across kingdoms and through dimensions for a lost child. It is blood-soaked, sex-stuffed and full of flesh-ripping events. Its readers will have no trouble imagining the conversations in publishers’ offices and book fairs after James turned it in: “Hey, you know that guy who won the Booker? His next one is Black Panther meets The Lord of the Rings!”
Alas it doesn’t take long for this violent picaresque to reveal itself as far duller than a book about a supernatural gay hunter shaman, who can catch blades with his hands and create sizzling magic doors out of the air, has any right to be. It’s hardly the fault of James’s lavish imagination: along Tracker’s way lurk hideous demons that follow the smell of blood; the devilish Zogbanu (“trolls from the Blood Swamp”); a huge man-eating fish called Chipfulambulu; a race of giants called Ogos who don’t like it when people call them giants (“even a young Ogo can rip the breast off the poor woman he suckles”); rapist hyenas; in addition to electricity demons, grass demons and “white scientists.” Essentially, if it has teeth and a bad attitude then somewhere in the course of these 620 crowded pages, Tracker will probably hit it with an axe.
The problem is the path of transmission. Black Leopard is a long novel, with a basic quest structure that is complicated at every turn by rambling digression. James’s framing narrative sets…