Warning: this post may contain spoilers for Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf
I really wanted to like this book. I thought going in that I would like this book, because it seemed to have so many things that I look for in new fantasy novels: originality, unusual inspirations, intriguing characters with conflicting and mysterious motivations, really unique world and magic, et cetera. In fact, I wanted to like this book so much that I managed to convince myself to keep reading through to the end, despite the fact that at least once per chapter I was about ready to put it down, so I guess you could say that’s a testament to it being a better novel than my rating would imply, since it kept giving me just enough of what I liked to keep me from walking away from it in disgust.
It’s not that the book lacks the things that I thought would make it amazing. The characters are intriguing and complex, the world is beautiful and unique, the magic is a refreshingly original blend between hard and soft, the prose and descriptions and general writing style are excellent and at times almost poetic, and the plot is twisted and convoluted (for all that I like the other framing elements, it was really the plot that kept me from just putting this book down and not coming back – I could see threads, but I couldn’t quite see how they all connected, and I wanted to). This book’s problem, and the reason that I rate it so poorly and that I was ready to put it down and never come back to it throughout most of my reading experience is the quantity of gratuitous, graphic violence and sexuality.
Now, Game of Thrones has become the de facto poster child for this kind of graphicness, but I did not dislike and ultimately put down that series because of the blood and gore. At least, not directly. See, in Game of Thrones that graphic nature is part of the world building, and it’s not so much detailed as it is ubiquitous. In Black Leopard, Red Wolf I did not find that to be the case. The blood and gore is certainly ubiquitous – you can barely get two pages without the narrator bringing the focus back to shall we say unsavory topics – but while it contributes to the novel’s tone I found it extremely off-putting. Maybe it’s just me, but I could have done with a lot more “fading to black,” a lot more left to the imagination, when it came to the more gruesome and graphic scenes of violence and sexuality in this book. Indeed, if that had been toned down even a couple of notches, I would probably be looking at very positive four star review right now.
But it was not toned down by any number of notches, which is why I certainly won’t be finding the other books in the series, and why this was one of the more disappointing picks I’ve made recently. Considering that this won all kinds of awards, and was highly acclaimed, and came highly recommended, I’d barely even call it fantasy. I guess the plot is vaguely fantasy-esque, but if I had to shelve this book I would probably call it horror. It does make me wonder – we find Dr. Seuss books too offensive to publish, but we’ll shower something brutal, graphic, disturbing, dirty, and in places disgusting with awards?
There are probably some of you who would find nothing wrong with this book, and many of you might even enjoy it, so I won’t go so far as to say that you shouldn’t read this book. It does have some elements that I really enjoyed. For me, those simply could not overcome the many, many parts that I did not enjoy. Still, I’m glad that I finally did find out what this entry on my reading list was all about, and even more glad to be moving onto a new book.