“What is truth when it always expands and shrinks? Truth is just another story.”
This is the essence of the epic African fantasy Black Leopard Red Wolf- storytelling. We are thrust into a story already in progress. Our main character & narrator, Tracker, is being questioned. We’re not sure why, but he appears to be in some sort of prison situation, with an inquisitor. Thus, the story begins.
Tracker has a nose. This is known. His nose takes him across many lands, and he meets at least 4 pages worth of people (all listed in the front so you can keep track!) I did mention that this is epic, right? After running from his homeland and his own very dysfunctional family, Tracker finds himself in a new land with a new kind of family. Here he meets Leopard, a shape-shifter who becomes both his best friend and deepest annoyance.
“The Leopard says too many things that slip off him like water does oil, but sticks to me like a stain. Truth, there are times I feel like I should wash him out. I am always happy to see him, but never sad when he is gone.”
They are both approached with a quest to find a boy. They are accompanied by a group of equally strange characters- a witch, a giant, a slaver, a mercenary, and others over the miles.
The quest takes Tracker to the very depths of himself- it breaks him down to nothing. This story is as much about self-discovery as anything else. The way Tracker’s people think about sexuality lies in the physical- a man becomes a man when they cut out the female through circumcision, and a woman becomes a woman when they cut out the man through clitorectomy. However, Tracker was never circumcised, so he remains both. It makes me think of the Native American’s Two Spirits. As his story begins, Tracker feels strong and manly, but he is brought down by events, he is made to empathize with the female in himself. He is forced to face his own nature, in a sense.
“I who thought he had his hatchets and his cunning, will one day be grabbed and tossed and thrown in with shit, 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.”
This is BRUTAL, and it is how he becomes the “Red Wolf” of the title.
When Tracker is able to overcome this, to come out the other end, and eventually love another man, we see the truth of his growth. That is the true quest here.
Mind you, while he is making his way towards this, SO MUCH HAPPENS! There are lightning people, mermaids, sad giants (don’t call him giant!), the smell of many butt cracks, witches, 19 doors, and lots of magic. I can’t even describe it, so I won’t try.
I will say that I know that many people put so many trigger warnings on this book, or were unwilling to read it due to rape scenes. I believe those scenes to be vital to the story; we are talking about a violent and wild land full of wild men and animals. Women are usually the victims of this violence, and James explores the fact that they are not the only victims.
Also, this book is long, and while I enjoyed it, I also felt that I really had to push myself through the end. There were just so many characters to keep track of and so much going on, I wanted to give up several times. The reason I didn’t was the devotion to beautiful language I found throughout. I may have been juggling too many characters, or sometimes dragging my feet a bit, but it was truly gorgeous. So I give it 4 solid stars!
“Word is divine wish, they say. Word is invisible to all but the gods. So when woman or man write words, they dare to look at the divine. Oh, what power.”