... the first spectacular volume of a planned trilogy ... James has spun an African fantasy as vibrant, complex and haunting as any Western mythology, and nobody who survives reading this book will ever forget it ... 'Ocean’s Eleven' has got nothing on this ensemble ... Harvesting mythology and fantasy from the rich soil of Africa — from the Anansi tales to the Sundiata Epic and so much more — James hangs a string of awesome adventures on this quest for the missing boy ... As these bloody stories and their mysteries pile up, I sometimes felt as lost as Tracker does in the woods, despite the inclusion of James’s five hand-drawn maps ... But I didn’t much mind the bouts of discombobulation because I was always enchanted by James’s prose with its adroit mingling of ancient and modern tones ... Scene by scene, the fights are cinematic spectacles, spellbinding blurs of violence set to the sounds of clanging swords and tearing tendons.
In these pages, James conjures the literary equivalent of a Marvel Comics universe — filled with dizzying, magpie references to old movies and recent TV, ancient myths and classic comic books, and fused into something new and startling by his gifts for language and sheer inventiveness ... James is such a nimble and fluent writer ... Even when he is nestling one tale within another like Russian dolls that underscore the provisional nature of storytelling... he is giving us a gripping, action-packed narrative. What the novel could have used is a little judicious pruning: As in superhero movies, the action sometimes assumes a predictable, episodic rhythm — one violent, bravura showdown after another, strung together by interludes of travel and efforts to regroup and connect the dots ... With Tracker and the Leopard, James has created two compelling and iconic characters — characters who will take their place in the pantheon of memorable and fantastical superheroes.
... the novel is twisty, spinning things out and then drawing them back in — a ceaseless narrative engine in a constant state of revving ... What I’m saying is, James continually surprises — not least in his cashing in of his literary cred for the chance to write straight fantasy ... What I’m saying is, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the real deal ... During the novel’s many battle scenes, the writing can become plodding, like the script notes for a blockbuster action movie... But then James will shift from these ho-hum physical clashes to more exciting bouts of verbal sparring, both in the form of dialogue (Tracker’s bitchy banter is perfect throughout) and in the form of storytelling ... Like the best fantasy, like the best literary fiction, like the best art period, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is uncanny: familiar and strange, a book that dramatizes the search for meaning ... what makes Black Leopard, Red Wolf so singular is how traditional and novel, how ancient and radical — that is to say, how good — it is.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is bawdy (OK, filthy), lyrical, poignant, violent (sometimes hyperviolent), riotous, funny (filthily hilarious), complex, mysterious, and always under tight and exquisite control ... Throughout, James makes the unreal real, without resorting to the kind of sludgy exposition that sometimes is referred to with a deepening sigh as 'world-building.' James’ settings feel lived-in and complex, down to the stink-eye the urban folk of Kongor give to the naked riverfolk ... It’s a masterful opening, as full of ghosts as the beginning of Seven Killings, and teaches us how to read the novel as a whole, in which the past, present and future often converge ... Black Leopard, Red Wolf isn’t without some faults, minor though they may be ... But these are quibbles at best. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is, for the most part, absolutely brilliant — and the last third of the novel attains a kind of page-turning intensity without sacrificing psychological complexity ... I can honestly say that James has created a novel and a world that is both fresh and beautifully realized and written. Whether this is innovation or renovation, I don’t know for sure. All I know is I loved it.
The novel is a delirious smoothie of cultural influences and tributes ... James’ mode is 'grimdark,' the subset of speculative fiction George R.R. Martin’s epic exemplifies, a mode that eschews J.R.R. Tolkien’s idealized, chivalric vision of the Middle Ages for something much closer to the brutal, hierarchical truth ... James seems to view Black Leopard, Red Wolf as a chance to gleefully embrace a host of established pop tropes ... The special skill James himself brings to the table is a voice of almost overwhelming confidence, earthiness, and brio ... Voice has always been James’ superpower ... Tracker’s voice—wounded, furious, disillusioned, impassioned, implacable—carries the reader through Black Leopard, Red Wolf like a riptide. Truth be told, the plot itself, although liberally salted with spectacular chase and fight scenes, unfolds at a leisurely pace. Furthermore, James molds the novel’s diction to African grammatical structures not always easy to follow ... ultimately they are what makes Black Leopard, Red Wolf so satisfying. The novel reshapes the way you read it as you go along.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first volume of the Dark Star trilogy, is, as promised, a fantasy novel, but it’s far more daring and audacious than George R.R. Martin’s magnum opus, far more complex and rich. It’s a profound reading experience ... In James’ hands, the conventions of fantasy are twisted, reworked, and, at times, discarded ... Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a fervent fever dream of a book, weaving together fantasy elements, mythology and history in a heady blend of voice, richly developed characters, layered and interwoven stories and shifting levels of reliability and reality ... If one allows themselves to be immersed in James’ world and words, they will emerge profoundly stirred, their understanding of the world, of the power of a novel, of the nature of reading itself, fundamentally changed.
The world James creates in Black Leopard, Red Wolf is an archaic one ... The pulsing rhythm of a fight scene... or the satisfying rhyme when Tracker confronts a king in the underworld... can make it feel as if you are listening to Tracker’s words rather than reading them ... If anything, James finds even greater scope to explore the gruesome and macabre [than in previous works] ... The drama lies not in good characters and bad characters facing off in a straightforward struggle for supremacy: it lies in the slippery and more complex contest of narrative and storytelling that unfolds.
... [While reading, I became aware] that I was reading a complex surreal saga that demanded serious attention and that I was reading something new and remarkable ... The novel’s settings are stunning in their detail and expansive in their geography, but it’s James’ creative flexing of the oral tradition of storytelling as the novel’s backbone and his gender-fluid, omnisexual main character, Tracker, that may well make this novel a standard-bearer for future fantasies ... James skillfully and often humorously plays off of [classic] traditions in his allusions.
Like some of its characters, the book is a shape-shifter, at times assuming the form of a classic fantasy epic and at others that of something ambiguous and bewildering, a fantastical creature that won’t stop moving long enough to submit to classification ... Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a treasury of stories shaped in the ancient oral tradition, a Decameron of spectacularly embellished African history and myth. That makes it somewhat erratic, of course. Mr. James is excellent at individualizing characters but less so with settings, and the cities through which Tracker passes can seem indistinguishably murky and savage. The plot feels slightly too dependent on improvised magical powers and the fight scenes verge on superhero silliness. But against the virtuoso storytelling, these are quibbles ... Open [this book] and you will have the tale, and then some.
The novel stands as an epic quest ... With Black Leopard, Red Wolf, James reorients the reader using bygone Africa, its kingdoms and its conjuring, as his muse. And he’s a much better prose stylist than Tolkien, knowing when to let Tracker’s blustery voice take center stage and when it should become quieter, so the fantastic may dazzle us instead ... James manages to write a fantasy novel that is both grounded and, simultaneously, playfully fantastic. This book might do his ﬁnest job yet of blending the horriﬁc and the exquisite: There is love and lust and betrayal and faerie folk, though here they’re called Yumboes ... This is going to be fun.
This is not a book to be read in a hurry, and yet it is difficult to dwell in. Besides the viciousness of its contents... the book fights against its own chosen style ... The beautiful flexibility of voice is counterpointed by a stiff absence of anything around long passages of dialogue, such that exchanges between characters feel like reading a play, or like archery — a twang, an arrow shot, and only the reply indicates whether or not it hit its target ... Black Leopard's utter immersion in threat is as astonishing as it is disquieting ... Reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf was like being slowly eaten by a bear, one inviting me to feel every pressure of tooth and claw tearing into me, asking me to contemplate the intimacy of violation and occasionally cracking a joke. It was a harrowing, horrible experience I'm not keen to repeat. But I can't deny that having finished it, I went back to the beginning to find things I now better understood, felt better able to withstand...
At 620 pages [Black Leopard, Red Wolf is] a big book, but also one of the bravest and boldest pieces of contemporary fiction I’ve read in years ...In Tracker we are presented with a wholly relatable and sympathetic character, a magnificent creation, who I hope will go on to feature in subsequent instalments. I also enjoyed the supporting characters of this book, especially Leopard, Sadogo the giant and Mossi the Prefect. As with James’s previous novels, the prose is remarkable ... Neil Gaiman states that 'Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the kind of novel I never realised I was missing' and this will undoubtedly be the opinion of the book’s hopefully wide audience.
... spectacular ... The first chapter alone is so startling and masterfully crafted I had to set the book down and pace my room for several minutes before continuing ... Tracker is irreverent, insightful, and deeply compelling ... [The book's] details don’t play large roles in the action of the story, but such brushstrokes of masterful worldbuilding abound ... Even with its vampires, shapeshifters, and magic spells, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is real.
... a wonderfully immersive experience ... The pleasure of the novel is not necessarily in following the plot that we see; it's uncovering the things we didn't see. Or the parts that were purposefully left out ... Black Leopard, Red Wolf is as dark and pulsing as blood from a fresh wound, nearly bursting with tragically flawed characters and some of the most truly musical dialogue in any book, fantasy or otherwise ... The most fascinating part of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the transformation of Tracker and how he goes from searching for a missing boy to wanting that boy dead.
James’ tale digs its hooks in and never lets go, rather like the claws of the flesh-eating Zogbanu trolls, or the teeth of a vicious ghommid. Yet for all the fantasy and action, James never loses sight of the human story as his hero ... Gender-bending romance, fantastical adventure, and an Afrocentric setting make for an inventive and engaging read.
Rich in allusions to sources as diverse as African myth and Gabriel García Márquez, the novel mercilessly parodies the conventions of fantasy ... Black Leopard, Red Wolf offers a nuanced portrayal of the intimate bond between the two eponymous Black heroes as they struggle to survive, communicate, and love in an era beset by armed conflict. As the first installment in James’s The Dark Star Trilogy, it successfully introduces readers to a civilization in crisis, populated by troubled mercenaries, unforgiving elites, and fantastical creatures. The novel is inexpressibly compelling, and the trilogy seems sure to become a genre-bending classic.
On the surface, it’s pretty typical adventure stuff, but the bones of the plot do not in any way capture the strange wonder that is Black Leopard ... Where James is truly brilliant as an author is how he crafts this dreamlike world where fantasy is both mad and mundane ... It takes some getting used to, but you find yourself, like Tracker, accepting children made of smoke, fish you can ride on and demons that walk the ceiling as they hunt blood. There’s no awe to the phantasmagoria. James allows his characters to show contempt for the uncanny, treating them as products of his tainted kingdoms rather than legends. It adds to oft-time nightmarish tone of the book.
... ferociously gripping ... Readers who have a weakness for trickster tales, for blood-soaked epics that read like a collision between Greek myth and the scarier parts of African folklore, will love Black Leopard, Red Wolf ... The shifts in landscape are dazzling — from sky cities to a forest haunted by the memory of elephants, James builds an extraordinary and unforgettable world, even though the narrative sometimes feels overpowered, the shifts almost too much to take in over one reading ... James has already made his bones as a novelist, and Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a game-changing modern fantasy classic.
James’ shrewd conjuring of [fantastic] beings, as well as the tribulations they face, demonstrates rich imagination and supple ingenuity ... The writing in Black Leopard, Red Wolf is infused throughout with similar lyricism [to A Brief History of Seven Killings] 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.
... James’ new book, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, is a clear-cut success ... The characters that populate Black Leopard, Red Wolf have origin stories rooted in trauma and violence, and James captures it all masterfully ... A trilogy-opener has the difficult job of being a compelling novel in its own right while preparing for what will follow. Black Leopard, Red Wolf clears both bars with ease.
... hulking, exhausting ... A lot rests on Tracker. Not just the quest for the child, but the success of Black Leopard, Red Wolf itself. In a novel so dizzyingly populated, where geographies multiply and stack up, where the boundaries between the real, surreal and flat-out fantastic seem increasingly fluid, Tracker has to be a point of anchorage, someone to rely on and to care about ... It’s Heart of Darkness for video gamers, a colonial-era catalogue of cliches about Africa – a continent where life is cheap, the women sexual commodities, the inhabitants duplicitous, all values negotiable ... The language is meant to shock, but strangely, given that James is often heralded as a Tarantino-like genius at choreographing bones, thugs and disharmony, everything feels plywood-brittle ... How strange then that for long, bone-dry sections [the book] reads as if James has never set foot in an African forest ... If James could go easier on the bloodletting and muscle-bound prose, choose subtlety and sensuousness over teenage-testosterone swagger, there’s still time for him to queer rather than pastiche the franchise fare he’s avariciously eyeing.
Black Leopard Red Wolf actively resists any attempts on the reader’s part to sink inside the world of the book and lose themselves. It is deliberately opaque, on the level of sentence as well as plot ... On the plot level, the quest for a missing boy that ostensibly powers the action of the book is so confusing, and has so little to do with the main character’s motivations, that the rest of the characters are constantly complaining about it ... It is nearly impossible for a reader to hook into the narrative. Yet Black Leopard Red Wolf spends hundreds and hundreds of pages tracking its many twists and permutations ... But while I may respect James’s choice as a critic, as a reader, I found much of Black Leopard to be a slog. It’s difficult to push through page after page of beautiful sentences — and James’s sentences really are stunning — that are organized specifically to avoid telling you who is doing what or why and why you should care ... It’s in the last section of the novel that... Black Leopard Red Wolf became unputdownable for me. But there were so so many pages to get through before that.
Drenched in African myth and folklore, and set in an astonishingly realized pre-colonized sub-Saharan region, Black Leopard crawls with creatures and erects kingdoms unlike any I’ve read ... James’ hyperactive plotting will lose you (don’t expect much linearity), and the novel is overlong, no matter how many corners James finds to explore in this world ... the fragmented narrative gets in the way of momentum ... And yet: For all its political power and artistry, Black Leopard, Red Wolf triumphs in James’ swagger. He hasn’t merely produced a literary earthquake. He shows off, his stylistic flair a cocky muscle-flex. This is a concert, a production, an epic. This is a revolutionary book.
As in his last novel, the alternately ribald and gloomy A Brief History of Seven Killings... James takes his time getting to the central storyline, wrapping the plot in atmosphere, legend, hyperbole, and good old-fashioned bullshitting. Black Leopard, Red Wolf has that same hesitation about getting to the crux of things, though this time it's even more pronounced ... It's an exhausting start to a series, with much to unpack and many dark paths to get lost on ... Here's hoping James keeps strange-ing this world.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is set in a fantasy version of Africa that is, as James described it, 'a little bit Dark Ages in Europe…sort of after the fall of Rome, but before the rise of Florence.' In the real world, while Europe was struggling to survive, the African continent was awash with expansive empires and wealthy kingdoms. For epic fantasy to focus almost exclusively on Western Europe and the British Isles means ignoring a treasure trove of storytelling opportunities—opportunities James eagerly takes on ... Fantasy has exploded with diversity in recent years, especially in Young Adult fiction. With epic fantasy, the tide is turning more slowly, but QPOC authors are turning the stodgy old subgenre inside out. If Charles R. Saunders’ Imaro series opened the door to new ways of telling epic fantasy, and N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy leapt over the threshold, then Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf just ripped the whole damn door off its hinges.
Its sweep and complex world-building echo such fantasy epics as The Lord of the Rings and One Hundred Years of Solitude ... If graphic descriptions of violence or sex give you the fantods, go read something else. The fight scenes and battles royale in Black Leopard Red Wolf are many and pyrotechnical ... The structure of Black Leopard Red Wolf is episodic and complex, following that quest for the missing boy and bending back to Tracker’s and the Leopard’s origin stories. James offers guidance, including a list of more than 80 characters ... Black Leopard Red Wolf’s momentum is powered by James’ incantatory, lush prose and magical storytelling.
There is a depth of storytelling and world-creating in Black Leopard, Red Wolf that rivals Beowulf, Lord of the Rings, EarthSea, or even Dune. This is fantasy at is most complicated, entertaining, and mythically weighty ... As engrossing as it can be, this novel is not an easy read. James's syntax and sentence structure, his complex plot, side-plots, and storylines can be very challenging but with over 600 pages, there is time to acclimate to James's language and world building, to puzzle out the intricacies of the varied narrative lines ... And this is a problem with the novel, as is common in fantasy novels written by men, women take a decidedly secondary role. In James's world women are often little more than chattel, punching bags, rape victims, or pawns in political games ... James does an excellent job of writing gay male characters and their inner conflicts ... Overall, James has drawn a hugely compelling world full of political intrigue on the level of Dune...
James has once again delivered something that must be read to be believed, a majestic novel full of unforgettable characters, gorgeous prose and vivid adventures ... Black Leopard, Red Wolf heralds the arrival of one of fantasy’s next great sagas and reaffirms James as one of the greatest storytellers of his generation.
... the phantasmagoria had me entranced. I’d be surprised if I’m not in for the [series'] long haul ... The novel’s a wild rumpus, with wild things of all kinds galumphing through multiple storylines ... Despite the African focus, the writing’s energy and subtlety calls to mind the great European sojourners, like Conrad or Lessing, struck by the country’s blend of vitality and menace ... The author shows endless sophistication, whether his players are making love or going for the kill. And James’ imaginative deftness with sub-Saharan culture sets his novel alongside other significant revisionism out of the African Diaspora.
A lot of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is gloriously rich, beautiful writing: visceral and muscular. James flexes often, and it’s always easy to appreciate, by the eye on the page and by the ear if you read out loud ... Some of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is outright frightening. It’s bloody and gory and vicious ... The fact that the narrative is this intense for over 600 pages is what gets overwhelming...
... dizzying ... pure, uncut pulp pleasure ... And like many of his fantasy-novel predecessors, he’s packed enough cup-runneth-over plot in this bible-thick tome’s chapters to fill several trilogies ... Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a claim-staking move, a saga worth its weight in Frank Frazetta paintings and a chance for the writer to leave his mark on a sword-and-sorcery template not usually associated with Man Booker Prize winners. The well of James’ imagination here feels virtually bottomless. You put it down word-drunk yet somehow thirsty for more.
Man Booker Prize winner James brings his obsession with legend, history, and folklore into this first volume of a projected Dark Star Trilogy ... If this first volume is any indication, James’ trilogy could become one of the most talked-about and influential adventure epics since George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire was transformed into Game of Thrones.
Booker winner James kicks off a planned trilogy with a trek across a fantastical Africa that is equal parts stimulating and enervating. Centering on the search for a lost boy, the plot is relatively straightforward, though the narrator, Tracker, moves his story obliquely 'as crabs do, from one side to the next.' ... It’s altogether overwhelming, but on the periphery of the novel are intriguing ideas about the performance of masculinity, cultural relativism, kinship and the slipperiness of truth. Though marred by its lack of subtlety, this is nonetheless a work of prodigious imagination capable of entrancing readers.