FINALIST FOR THE 2019 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD
The New York Times Bestseller
Named a Best Book of 2019 by The Wall Street Journal, TIME, NPR, GQ, Vogue, and The Washington Post
"A fantasy world as well-realized as anything Tolkien made." Neil Gaiman
"Gripping, action-packed....The literary equivalent of a Marvel Comics universe." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
The epic novel, an African Game of Thrones, from the Man Booker Prize-winning author of A Brief History of Seven Killings
In the stunning first novel in Marlon James's Dark Star trilogy, myth, fantasy, and history come together to explore what happens when a mercenary is hired to find a missing child.
Tracker is known far and wide for his skills as a hunter: "He has a nose," people say. Engaged to track down a mysterious boy who disappeared three years earlier, Tracker breaks his own rule of always working alone when he finds himself part of a group that comes together to search for the boy. The band is a hodgepodge, full of unusual characters with secrets of their own, including a shape-shifting man-animal known as Leopard.
As Tracker follows the boy's scentfrom one ancient city to another; into dense forests and across deep rivershe and the band are set upon by creatures intent on destroying them. As he struggles to survive, Tracker starts to wonder: Who, really, is this boy? Why has he been missing for so long? Why do so many people want to keep Tracker from finding him? And perhaps the most important questions of all: Who is telling the truth, and who is lying?
Drawing from African history and mythology and his own rich imagination, Marlon James has written a novel unlike anything that's come before it: a saga of breathtaking adventure that's also an ambitious, involving read. Defying categorization and full of unforgettable characters, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is both surprising and profound as it explores the fundamentals of truth, the limits of power, and our need to understand them both.
About the Author
Marlon James was born in Jamaica in 1970. He is the author of the New York Times-bestseller Black Leopard, Red Wolf, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction in 2019. His novel A Brief History of Seven Killings won the 2015 Man Booker Prize. It was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature for fiction, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction, and the Minnesota Book Award. It was also a New York Times Notable Book. James is also the author of The Book of Night Women, which won the 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Minnesota Book Award, and was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction and an NAACP Image Award. His first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for first fiction and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and was a New York Times Editors’ Choice. James divides his time between Minnesota and New York.
Read an Excerpt
The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.
I hear there is a queen in the south who kills the man who brings her bad news. So when I give word of the boy’s death, do I write my own death with it? Truth eats lies just as the crocodile eats the moon, and yet my witness is the same today as it will be tomorrow. No, I did not kill him. Though I may have wanted him dead. Craved for it the way a glutton craves goat flesh. Oh, to draw a bow and fire it through his black heart and watch it explode black blood, and to watch his eyes for when they stop blinking, when they look but stop seeing, and to listen for his voice croaking and hear his chest heave in a death rattle saying, Look, my wretched spirit leaves this most wretched of bodies, and to smile at such tidings and dance at such a loss. Yes, I glut at the conceit of it. But no, I did not kill him.
Bi oju ri enu a pam o.
Not everything the eye sees should be spoken by the mouth.
This cell is larger than the one before. I smell the dried blood of executed men; I hear their ghosts still screaming. Your bread carries weevils, and your water carries the piss of ten and two guards and the goat they fuck for sport. Shall I give you a story?
I am just a man who some have called a wolf. The child is dead. I know the old woman brings you different news. Call him murderer, she says. Even though my only sorrow is that I did not kill her. The redheaded one said the child’s head was infested with devils. If you believe in devils. I believe in bad blood. You look like a man who has never shed blood. And yet blood sticks between your fingers. A boy you circumcised, a young girl too small for your big . . . Look how that thrills you. Look at you.
I will give you a story.
It begins with a Leopard. And a witch.
Grand Inquisitor. Fetish priest.
No, you will not call for the guards.
My mouth might say too much before they club it shut.
Regard yourself. A man with two hundred cows who delights in a patch of boy skin and the koo of a girl who should be no man’s woman. Because that is what you seek, is it not? A dark little thing that cannot be found in thirty sacks of gold or two hundred cows or two hundred wives. Something that you have lost—no, it was taken from you. That light, you see it and you want it—not light from the sun, or from the thunder god in the night sky, but light with no blemish, light in a boy who has no knowledge of women, a girl you bought for marriage, not because you need a wife, for you have two hun- dred cows, but a wife you can tear open, because you search for it in holes, black holes, wet holes, undergrown holes for the light that vampires look for, and you will have it, you will dress it up in ceremony, circumcision for the boy, consummation for the girl, and when they shed blood, and spit, and sperm and piss you leave it all on your skin, to go to the iroko tree and use any hole you find.
The child is dead, and so is everyone.
I walked for days, through swarms of flies in the Blood Swamp and skin- slicing rocks in salt plains, through day and night. I walked as far south as Omororo and did not know or care. Men detained me as a beggar, took me for a thief, tortured me as a traitor, and when news of the dead child reached your kingdom, arrested me as a murderer. Did you know there were five men in my cell? Four nights ago. The scarf around my neck belongs to the only man who left on two feet. He might even see from his right eye again one day.
The other four. Make record as I have said it.
Old men say night is a fool. It will not judge, but whatever comes it will not warn. The first came for my bed. I woke up to my own death rattle, and it was a man, crushing my throat. Shorter than an Ogo, but taller than a horse. Smelled like he butchered a goat. Grabbed me by the neck and hoisted me up in the air while the other men kept quiet. I tried to pull his fingers but a devil was in his grip. Kicking his chest was kicking stone. He held me up as if admiring a precious jewel. I kneed him in the jaw so hard his teeth sliced his tongue. He dropped me, and I charged for his balls like a bull. He fell, I grabbed his knife, razor sharp, and cut his throat. The second grabbed for my arms, but I was naked and slippery. The knife— my knife—I rammed it between his ribs and heard his heart pop. The third man danced with his feet and fists, like a night fly, whistling like a mosquito. Made a fist I did, then stuck two fingers out, like rabbit ears. Jabbed his left eye in the quick and pulled the whole thing out. He screamed. Watching him bawl on the floor, searching for his eye, I forgot the other two men. The fat one behind me, he swung, I ducked, he tripped, he fell, I jumped, I grabbed the rock that was my pillow and bashed his head until his face smelled fleshy.
The last man was a boy. He cried. He was too shaken to beg for his life. I told him to be a man in his next life, for he is less than a worm in this one, and flung the knife right into his neck. His blood hit the floor before his knees. I let the half-blind man live because we need stories in order to live, don’t we, priest? Inquisitor. I don’t know what to call you.
But these are not your men. Good. Then you have no death song to sing to their widows.
You have come for a story and I am moved to talk, so the gods have smiled on both of us.
There was a merchant in the Purple City, who said he lost his wife. She went missing with five gold rings, ten and two pairs of earrings, twenty and two bracelets, and ten and nine anklets. It is said you have a nose for finding what would rather stay lost, he said. I was near twenty in years, and long ban- ished from my father’s house. The man thought I was some kind of hound,
but I said yes, it has been said that I have a nose. He threw me his wife’s undergarment. Her trail was so faint it was almost dead. Maybe she knew that one day men would come hunting, for she had a hut in three villages and no one could tell which one she lived in. In each house was a girl who looked exactly like her and even answered to her name. The girl in the third house invited me in and pointed to a stool for me to sit. She asked if I was thirsty and reached for a jug of masuku beer before I said yes. Let me remind you that my eyes are ordinary but it has been said that I have a nose. So when she brought over the mug of beer I had already smelled the poison she put in it, a wife’s poison called cobra spit that loses taste once you mix it with water. She gave me the mug and I took it, grabbed her hand, and bent it behind her back. I put the mug to her lips and forced it between her teeth. Her tears ran down and I took away the mug.
She took me to her mistress, who lived in a hut by the river. My husband beat me so hard that my child fell out, the mistress said. I have five gold rings, ten and two pairs of earrings, twenty and two bracelets, and ten and nine anklets, which I will give you, as well as a night in my bed. I took four anklets, and I took her back to her husband because I wanted his money more than her jewelry. Then I told her to have the woman from the third hut make him masuku beer.
The second story.
My father came home one night smelling of a fisher woman. She was on him, and so was the wood of a Bawo board. And the blood of a man not my father. He played a game against a binga, a Bawo master, and lost. The binga demanded his winnings, and my father grabbed the Bawo board and smashed it on the master’s forehead. He said he was at an inn far away so that he could drink, tickle women, and play Bawo. My father beat the man until he stopped moving and then left the bar. But no stink of sweat was on him, not much dust, no beer on his breath, nothing. He had not been in a bar but in the den of an opium monk.
So Father came into the house and shouted for me to come from the grain shed I was living in, for by now he had banished me from the house.
“Come, my son. Sit and play Bawo with me,” he said.
The board was on the floor, many balls missing. Too many for a good game. But my father was looking to win, not to play.
Surely you know Bawo, priest; if not I must explain it to you. Four rows of eight holes on the board, each player gets two rows. Thirty and two seeds for each player, but we had fewer than that, I cannot remember how much. Each player puts six seeds in the nyumba hole, but my father placed eight. I would have said, Father, are you playing the game southern style, eight instead of six? But my father never speaks when he can punch, and he has punched me for less. Every time I placed a seed he would say, Capture and take my seeds. But he was hungry for drink and asked for palm wine. My mother brought him water, and he pulled her by the hair, slapped her twice, and said, Your skin will forget these marks by sunset. My mother would not give him the pleasure of her tears, so she left and came back with wine. I smelled for poison, and would have let it be. But while he was beating my mother for using witchcraft to either slow her ag- ing or hurry his, he missed the game. I sowed my seeds, two to a hole right to the end of the board, and captured his seeds. This did not please my father.
“You took the game to mtaji phase,” he said. “No, we are just beginning,” I said.
“How dare you speak to me with disrespect? Call me Father when you talk to me,” he said.
I said nothing and blocked him on the board.
He had no seeds left in his inner row and could not move.
“You have cheated,” he said. “There are more than thirty and two seeds on your board.”
I said, “Either you are blind from wine or you cannot count. You sowed seeds, and I captured them. I sowed seeds all along my row and built a wall that you have no seed to break.”
He punched me in the mouth before I could say another word. I fell off the stool and he grabbed the Bawo board to hit me the way he hit the binga. But my father was drunk and slow, and I had been watching the Ngolo mas- ters practice their fight craft by the river. He swung the board and seeds went scattering in the sky. I flipped backways three times like I saw them do and crouched down like a waiting cheetah. He looked around for me as if I had vanished.
“Come out, you coward. Coward like your mother,” he said. “This is why it brings me joy to disgrace her. First I will beat you, then I will beat her for raising you, then I will leave a mark so that both of you remember that she raised a boy to be a mistress of men,” he said.
Fury is a cloud that leaves my mind empty and my heart black. I jumped and kicked my legs out in the air, each time higher.
“Now he hops like an animal,” he said.
He charged at me but I was no longer a boy. I charged at him in the small house, dived to the ground with my hands, turned my hands to feet, and flipped up, spun my whole body like a wheel with my legs in the air, spun towards him and locked him with my two feet around his neck and brought him down hard. His head smacked the ground so loud that my mother out- side heard the crack. She ran inside and screamed.
“Get away from him, child. You have ruined both of us.” I looked at her and spat. Then I left.
There are two endings to this story. In the first, my legs locked around his neck and broke it when I brought him down to the ground. He died right there on the floor and my mother gave me five cowries and sorghum wrapped in palm leaf and sent me away. I told her that I would leave with nothing he owned, not even clothes.
In the second ending, I do not break his neck, but he still lands on his head, which cracks and bleeds. He wakes up an imbecile. My mother gives me five cowries and a sorghum wrapped in banana leaf and says, Leave this place, your uncles are all worse than he.
My name was my father’s possession, so I left it by his gate. He dressed in nice robes, silks from lands he had never seen, sandals from men who owed him money, anything to make him forget that he came from a tribe in the river valley. I left my father’s house wanting nothing that reminded me of him. The old ways called out to me before I even left and I wanted to take every piece of garment off. To smell like a man, with funk and stink, not the perfume of city women and eunuchs. People would look at me with the scorn they save for swamp folk. I would step into the city, or the bedchamber, headfirst like a prized beast. The lion needs no robe and neither does the cobra. I would go to Ku, where my father came from, even if I did not know the way.
My name is Tracker. Once I had a name, but have long forgotten it. The third story.
A queen of a kingdom in the West said she would pay me well to find her King. Her court thought she was mad, for the King was dead, drowned five years now, but I had no problem with finding the dead. I took her down payment and left for where those dead by drowning lived.
I kept walking until I came to an old woman by a river with a tall stick sitting at the banks. Her hair white at the sides, her head bald at the top. Her face had lines like paths in the forest and her yellow teeth meant her breath was foul. The stories say she rises each morning youthful and beautiful, blooms full and comely by midday, ages to a crone by nightfall, and dies at midnight to be born again the next hour. The hump in her back was higher than her head, but her eyes twinkled, so her mind was sharp. Fish swam right up to the point of the stick but never went beyond.
“Why have you come to this place?” she asked. “This is the way to Monono,” I said.
“Why have you come to this place? A living man?”
“Life is love and I have no love left. Love has drained itself from me, and run to a river like this one.”
“It’s not love you have lost, but blood. I will let you pass. But when I lay with a man I live without dying for seventy moons.”
So I fucked the crone. She lay on her back by the bank, her feet in the river. She was nothing but bones and leather, but I was hard for her and full with vigor. Something was swimming between my legs that felt like fishes. Her hand touched my chest and my white clay stripes turned into waves around my heart. I thrust in and out of her, unnerved by her silence. In the dark I felt she was getting younger even though she was getting older. Flame spread inside me, spread to the tips of my fingers and the tip of me inside her. Air gathered around water, water gathered around air and I yelled, and pulled out, and rained on her belly, her arms, and her breasts. A shudder ran through me five times. She was still a crone, but I was not angry. She scooped my rain off her chest and flicked it off in the river. At once fish leapt up and dived in, leapt up again. This was a night when dark ate the moon, but the fishes had a light within them. The fishes had the head, arms, and breasts of women.
“Follow them,” she said.
I followed them through day and night, and day again. Sometimes the river was as low as my ankle. Sometimes the river was as high as my neck. Water washed all the white from my body, leaving just my face. The fish- women, womenfish, took me down the river for days and days and days until we came to a place I cannot describe. It was either a wall of river, which stood firm even though I could push my hand through it, or the river had bent itself downward and I could still walk, my feet touching the ground, my body standing without falling.
Sometimes the only way forward is through. So I walked through. I was not afraid.
I cannot tell you if I stopped breathing or if I was breathing under- water. But I kept walking. River fish surrounded me as if asking me my business. I kept walking, the water around me waving my hairs loose, rins- ing under my arms. Then I came upon something I have never seen in all the kingdoms. A castle in a clear field of grass made of stone, two, three, four, five, six floors high. At each corner, a tower with a dome roof, also in stone. On each floor, windows cut out of the stone, and below the windows, a floor with gold railings called a terrace. And from the build- ing was a hall that connected it to another building and another hall that connected it to another building so that there were four joined castles in a square.
None of the castles were as huge as the first, and the last was a ruin. When the water disappeared and left stone, grass, and sky I cannot tell you. There were trees in a straight line as far as I could see, gardens in squares, and flow- ers in circles. Not even the gods had a garden like this. It was after the noon and the kingdom was empty. In the evening, which came quick, breezes shifted up and down, and winds went rough past me, like fat men in a hurry. By sunset men and women and beasts were moving in and out of sight, ap- pearing in the shadows, disappearing in the last sunrays, appearing again. I sat on the steps of the largest castle and watched them as sun fled the dark. Men, walking beside women, and children who looked like men, and women who looked like children. And men who were blue, and women who were green, and children who were yellow, with red eyes and gills in the neck. And creatures with grass hair, and horses with six legs, and packs of abadas with zebra legs, a donkey’s back, and a rhinoceros’s horn on the forehead running with more children.
A yellow child walked up to me and said, “How did you get here?”
“I came through the river.”
“And the Itaki let you?”
“I don’t know of Itaki, only an old woman who smelled like moss.”
The yellow child turned red and his eyes went white. His parents came and fetched him. I got up and climbed the steps twenty feet into the castle, where more men, women, children, and beasts laughed, and talked, and chatted, and gossiped. At the end of the hallway was a wall with panels of wars and warriors cast in bronze, one I recognized as the battle of the mid- lands where four thousand men were killed, and another from the battle of the half-blind Prince, who led his entire army over a cliff he mistook for a hill. At the bottom of the wall was a bronze throne that made the man in it look as small as a baby.
“Those are not the eyes of a God-fearing man,” he said. I knew it was the King, for who else would it be?
“I have come to take you back to the living,” I said.
“Even the dead lands have heard of you, Tracker. But you have wasted your time and risked your life for nothing. I see no reason to return, no rea- son for me, and no reason for you.”
“I have no reason for anything. I find what people have lost and your Queen has lost you.”
The King laughed.
“Here we are in Monono, you the only living soul, and yet the most dead man in this court,” he said.
Inquisitor, I wish people would understand that I have no time for this argument. There is nothing I fight for and nothing I will fight over, so waste none of my time starting fights. Raise your fist and I will break it. Raise your tongue and I will cut it out of your mouth.
The King had no guards in the throne room, so I stepped towards him, watching the crowd watching me. He was neither excited nor afraid, but had the blankness of face that said, These are the things that must happen to you. Four steps led up to the platform where his throne sat. Two lions by his feet, so still I couldn’t tell if they were flesh, spirit, or stone. He had a round face with a chin peeking below the chin, big black eyes, a flat nose with two rings, and a thin mouth, as if he had eastern blood. He wore a gold crown over a white scarf that hid his hair, a white coat with silver birds, and a purple bib over the coat trimmed also in gold. I could have picked him up with my finger.
I walked right up to his throne. The lions did not stir. I touched the brass arm, cut like an upturned lion’s paw, and thunder rumbled above me, heavy, slow, sounding black and leaving a rotten smell on the wind. Up in the ceil- ing, nothing. I was still looking up when the King jammed a dagger into my palm so hard that it dug into the chair arm and stuck.
I screamed; he laughed and eased back into his throne.
“You may think the underworld honors its promise, to be the land free from pain and suffering, but that’s a promise made to the dead,” he said.
Nobody else laughed with him, but they watched.
He watched me with a suspicious eye and stroked his chin, as I grabbed the dagger and pulled it out, the pull making me yell. The King jumped when I grabbed him, but I cut into the tail of his coat and ripped a piece off. He laughed while I wrapped my hand. I punched him full in the face, and only then did the crowd murmur. I heard deathly footsteps coming towards me and turned around. The crowd stopped. No, they were held back. Noth- ing on their faces, neither anger nor fear. And then the crowd jumped back as one, looking past me to the King, standing, the bloody lion’s paw in his hand. The King threw the paw in the air, right up to the ceiling, and the crowd oohed. The paw never came down. Some at the back started to run. Some in the crowd shouted, some screamed. Man trampled woman who trampled child. The King kept laughing. Then a creak, then a rip, then a break, as if gods of the sky were ripping the roof open. Omoluzu, some- body said.
Omoluzu. Roof walkers, night demons from an age before this age. “They have tasted your blood, Tracker. Omoluzu will never stop following you.”
I grabbed his hand and sliced it. He bawled like a river girl while the ceiling started to shift, sounding as if it was cracking and breaking and hiss- ing, but staying still. I held his hand over mine and collected his blood while he slapped and punched like a little boy, trying to pull away. The first shape rose out of the ceiling when I threw the King’s blood in the air.
“Now both of our fates are mixed,” I said.
His smile vanished, his jaw dropped, and his eyes popped. I dragged him down the steps as the ceiling rumbled and cracked. Men black in body, black in face, black where eyes should be, pulled themselves out of the ceiling like men climbing out of holes. And when they rose they stood on the ceiling the way we stand on the ground. From the Omoluzu came blades of light, sharp like swords and smoking like burning coal. The King ran off screaming, leav- ing his sword.
They charged. I ran, hearing them bounce off the ceiling. One would hop and not fall to the floor but land back on the ceiling, as if I was the one up- side down. I ran for the outer court but two ran ahead of me. They hopped down and swung swords. My spear blocked both blows but the force knocked me over. One came at me with sword craft. I dodged left, missed his blade, and ran my spear right into his chest. The spear moved in slow as if piercing tar. He jumped away, taking my spear with him. I grabbed the King’s sword. Two from behind grabbed my ankles and swooped me up to the ceiling, where blackness swirled like the night sea. I sliced the sword through the black, cut their limbs off, and landed on the floor like a cat. Another tried to grab my hand but I grabbed him and pulled him to the ground, where he vanished like smoke. One came at me sideways and I dodged but his blade caught my ear and it burned. I turned and charged at his blade with my own, and sparks popped in the dark. He flinched. My hands and feet moved like a Ngolo master’s. I rolled and tumbled, hand over feet over hand, until I found my spear, near the outer chambers. Many torches were lit. I ran to the first and dipped my spear in the oil and flame. Two Omoluzu were right above me. I heard them ready their blades to cut me in two. But I leapt with the burning spear and ran right through them both. Both burst into flames, which spread to the ceiling. The Omoluzu scattered.
I ran through the outer chamber, down the hallway, and out the door. Outside the moon shone faint, like light through cloudy glass. The little fat King did not even run.
“Omoluzu appear where there is a roof. They cannot walk on open sky,” he said.
“How your wife will love this tale.”
“What do you know of love anyone had for anyone?”
I pulled him along, but there was another passage, about fifty paces long. Five steps in, the ceiling began ripping apart. Ten steps in and they were running across the ceiling as fast as we ran on the ground, and the lit- tle fat King was falling behind me. Ten and five steps and I ducked to miss a blade swinging for my head that knocked off the King’s crown. I lost count after ten and five. Halfway along the passage, I grabbed a torch and threw it up at the ceiling. One of the Omoluzu burst into flame and fell, but vanished into smoke before hitting the ground. We dashed outside again. Far off was the gate, with a stone arch that could not have been wide enough for the Omoluzu to appear. But as we ran under two jumped out of the ceiling and one sliced across my back. Somewhere between run- ning to the river and coming through the wall of water, I lost both the wounds and the memory of where they were. I searched, but my skin bore no mark.
Mark this: The journey to his kingdom was much longer than the journey to his dead lands. Days passed before we met the Itaki at the riverbank, but she was no old woman, only a little girl, skipping in the water, who looked at me in the sly way of women four times her age. When the Queen met her King, she quarreled and cussed and beat him so hard, I knew that it would be mere days before he drowned himself again.
I know the thought that just ran through you. And all stories are true.
Above us is a roof.
Reading Group Guide
1. Black Leopard, Red Wolf begins as a story told by a prisoner to his jailer. How does this structure inform the reader’s experience of the novel?
2. Over the course of the novel, Tracker reveals a complex family background. How do you think that background affects his relationships with other characters as the story unfolds?
3. Tracker and Leopard’s relationship is at the center of this novel. How would you describe that relationship? Why is it so hard for the two of them to get along for much of the book?
4. Is Tracker the “hero” in this story? Do you find you trust him as a narrator? And if not, what parts of his tale do you think he might be lying about?
5. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is populated with a lot of characters, many of them working together (at least sometimes) to accomplish the same goal. Other than Tracker, which member of the fellowship did you find most compelling and why? Who did you have the most questions about?
6. Tracker has problematic ideas about and relationships with women. How do these issues inform the narrative?
7. Sogolon and her quest loom large over the rest of the novel. What do you think of the choices she makes in pursuit of her goal?
8. What aspects of Black Leopard, Red Wolf feel connected to the classic fantasy tradition? How does the book depart from that lineage?