New Releases: 2019, Part One
Black Leopard, Red Wolf – Marlon James
Black Leopard, Red Wolf defies reviewing; it exists in its own world, far beyond the conventions of modern literature. It’s tempting to tear it down because it doesn’t do what you expect a novel to do, but it’s equally tempting to ignore or dismiss its flaws for the same reason. I’m going to do my best to resist giving in to those temptations. The aspects of the book which don’t work, however, are nearly indistinguishable from the aspects which only appear not to work because they grate on our modern sensibilities—the difficulty lies in teasing them apart. But I’ll try.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the first novel in a trilogy, but not in the conventional sense: each book will tell the same story from a different perspective, Rashomon-style (James was actually inspired by the television series The Affair), and it will ultimately be the responsibility of the reader to sift through the stories and settle on what they believe and what they don’t. This version of the story is told by Tracker, who, having been imprisoned before the beginning of the novel, is now recounting the story of how he got there. The bulk of the book consists of Tracker’s journey through a sorcery-soaked hellscape inspired by African mythology as he and a fellowship of misfits search for a missing boy they have been hired to find and recover.
This narrative is punctured by flashes of extreme violence (this is not a novel for the squeamish): the world of Black Leopard, Red Wolf doesn’t play by our rules, and Tracker is a hero only in the sense that Achilles and Beowulf are heroes. James is working in the mythic tradition of stories such as theirs, and Black Leopard, Red Wolf doesn’t have the luxury of a thousand years in the literary canon to soften the force of its blow. This is intensified by James’ rich, knotted prose, which is as difficult to unpack as it is rewarding to do so. But underneath its thorny exterior, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a deeply tender book with a sensitive relationship to abuse and trauma as well as an intimate understanding of gender and sexuality and their liminal spaces.
I find myself thinking about Black Leopard, Red Wolf in the same way I think about texts such as Beowulf or The Canterbury Tales: I don’t recommend them, but I do think you should read them. Know what you’re getting into—this is a dense, punishing read, and it will not treat you kindly if you try to force your way through it. I also want to provide a brief fact-check: Black Leopard, Red Wolf’s marketing campaign proclaimed it “an African Game of Thrones.” Off-base comparisons are common in marketing, but this is especially egregious—Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a violent fantasy novel that relies heavily on the power of POV, but the similarities to Game of Thrones and/or A Song of Ice and Fire end there. The characters, the plotting, the style, and the structure of the book are about as far from the work of George R.R. Martin as is possible.
All that said, I loved Black Leopard, Red Wolf because it uprooted me, punched me in the face, and then knocked me on my butt (figuratively, thankfully): it reminded me of the vitality a story can have when it isn’t Euro-centric, when not every character is white or straight or even human. It is a testament to the allure and a reminder of the artificiality of narrative. It is bold. It is uncompromising. It’s hardly perfect, but it is one of this decade’s defining works of fantasy literature—the genre will spend years reeling from it and reckoning with it. I don’t recommend Black Leopard, Red Wolf. But I needed to read it, and I’m glad I read it. I hope you will be, too.
The Raven Tower – Ann Leckie
Although light-years more accessible than Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower is no less unconventional: the story is told from the perspective of a boulder—a god, technically, but a god who is literally a boulder—who is describing the events of the book to a key character involved in those events (some reviewers claim that the novel is written from a second person POV; it is actually written from a first person POV, but it has a deceptive resemblance to second person because the narration is about and directed at the same character) while also sharing its own story. Does that make sense? Probably not. Let me back up a bit.
In the world of The Raven Tower, gods come in all shapes and sizes (such as boulder-shaped and boulder-sized). Many have formed symbiotic relationships with the humans who live near and around them, providing them with protection in exchange for offerings, from which they quite directly derive their power. They then use their power to affect the world through speech; what a god speaks becomes true in the world, but only if they have sufficient power to make it true—if a god speaks something untrue, or something which they cannot make true, that god courts death.
The core story of The Raven Tower was clearly inspired by Hamlet. The Raven is the patron god of a place called Iraden; Iraden, in turn, is ruled by the Raven’s Lease. But the Lease is gone and has been replaced by his brother (the Claudius character), and the Lease’s son, Mawat (the Hamlet character), refuses to accept what has happened. The main character of the book, however, is Mawat’s aide, a transgender man named Eolo (the Horatio character), and it is to him that the boulder-god, Strength and Patience, is telling the story. I cannot express how exciting it is to encounter a trans character in a fantasy novel—although not unprecedented, fantasy is decades behind science-fiction in the realm of LGBTQ+ representation (particularly in regard to gender identity, for obvious reasons) and I am glad to see a major release closing the gap.
The Raven Tower’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: its length (or lack thereof). It’s a stand-alone story, and Leckie would have to tell it four times over if she wanted to rival the heft of even one Martin or Sanderson tome. It’s refreshing to experience a fantasy book with a beginning, middle, and end—and it’s a killer ending, too—all in a single volume, but I found myself wanting more. Not necessarily more story (although I would happily read a sequel), but just more. More time with the characters, more emotion and texture, more interplay between the elements of Leckie’s exceptional worldbuilding. The Raven Tower sometimes feels bare-bones, more an outline or a template than an actual novel, and it suffers for it. That said, this is an excellent book and I will happily recommend it to fantasy and non-fantasy readers alike.
Reviews by Erin Larson