Review: Black Leopard, Red Wolf
I find it interesting just how wide and varied the opinions given for a single book can be. This concept has been rattling around in my brain ever since I started reading this book. Prior to deciding to pick it up, I’d seen a decent amount of buzz about it making the rounds on social media. Nothing too excessive. Some people bandying it about as an “African Game of Thrones”. But then it showed up on a list of books. Well, not just any old list, but a list from Time Magazine of “The Best 100 Fantasy Books of All Time” put together by a selected panel of “well-esteemed” fantasy authors. I mean yeeeeesh. How could I not take them up on that opportunity? At the time though, I somehow completely missed the fact that the author of this book… was actually on the panel.
Yeah. Okay, I’d say that’s a pretty good primer for one of the most tedious books I’ve finished reading in a long, long time.
BLACK LEOPARD, RED WOLF is the first book in a planned trilogy that is purported to be a collection of different perspectives surrounding the same series of events. The setup in this first volume is that a boy was abducted about three years ago, and the main character has been tasked with finding him. This man, Tracker, has a “nose” for finding the things that he seeks and is used to working alone, but in this instance agrees to travel with a group of other individuals. One of these is a shape-shifter that morphs between man and Leopard. About halfway through the book, we find out that the boy might be a prince, and I guess that’s where the GoT reference comes in. Meh.
The entirety of the story occurs as we follow Tracker across the land in search of this unknown boy. Along the way, he runs into lots of interesting characters. Some that want to get to know him. Some that already know him. Some that want to kill him. Some that want nothing more than to bed him. Consistently, the characters and beings and creatures that Tracker runs into put on display and show a wide range of possible imagination and fascinating thought. One of the reasons why I like reading books that include new cultures and histories is precisely because so much of it is new and exciting. One of the down sides of having these new experiences though is that I’m completely ignorant of what pieces of the “new” have come directly from the imagination of the author, and which pieces have been lifted from the unfamiliar culture and merely inserted into the book. I don’t think that being unable to discern the difference between the two lessens my possible enjoyment of the story at all. Just that it weakens my ability to judge the author on their possible imaginative merit.
From a story-telling perspective, there was very little that I enjoyed at all about my reading experience here. Not only is there little to no characterization of any of the principle characters of interest, but there’s also little to no description of the space surrounding those characters. Meaning, there’s a whole lot of description of “actions” (He went here. He did this.) and a whole lot of characters talking to one another, but there’s very little of anything else. Occasionally, such as during a fight scene, the level of external description increases for a short period of time, but then completely drops away again. What this did was leave me completely unaware of what was happening around the main character. So, secondary characters would suddenly pop into the scene with no introduction whatsoever, leaving me completely lost as to who this new person was or what might be happening. Add to this, the story’s penchant to jump around in time. Telling a non-linear story is difficult at the best of times, and this was so far from the best of times that I can’t even begin to describe how difficult it was to keep track of what was going on in the story.
The writing isn’t bad, in and of itself. The main complaint I had against it was that I couldn’t ingest more than a few paragraphs without having something else crop up and confuse me at to what was happening. For the first good length of the book, I found myself constantly going back and re-reading, trying to understand what was going on, and who this new person was, and where any of this was happening. In many ways, the reading experience felt like I was reading prose that belonged in a picture book. Not a kids book. Oh no. This tale is rife with potentially offensive content and not for children or even young adults. Think about the story-telling style of a picture book though. Something like Berenstain Bears. You may or may not be familiar with this series that was popular during my childhood. What pieces of those stories are told through the prose? What pieces are told through the pictures? Now, think about reading an entire novel–and a long one at that–that only included the prose from that kind of book. Again, the writing itself wasn’t juvenile. Just talking what details have been included.
Additionally, the characters tendencies to launch off on secondary tales that had no discernable delineation from the main story line constantly led me to wondering how the current events fit into where the characters were just a few pages ago. It seemed almost as if every trick in the book was being used to purposefully make this reading difficult. And I just don’t get that.
You might notice, if you’re particularly astute, that I gave this book a bump in its rating over another book with the same rating. I did this because I listened to the audiobook and the voice talent, Dion Graham, did a particularly good job of putting emotion into the story where it should have been (but wasn’t). In portraying the various ranks of characters arrayed throughout the book. I’d totally listen to another book voiced by this guy.
Frustrating to read and difficult to follow, BLACK LEOPARD, RED WOLF has so much of what every great fantasy book should absolutely avoid.
Perhaps it’s just me, but if some future, traditionally published version of me had been given an opportunity to sit on a panel of authors and pick out the one hundred best fantasy books of all time, there is absolutely ZERO chance that I’d ever choose or even allow anything that I’d written to be included on that list. There’s just no way. Audacity doesn’t even begin to cover it. And one of the selected authors–a person that has only ever published two books in her entire career–has BOTH of those books included on the list. I just– I just can’t. How can anyone trust that a list like that might be anywhere close to accurate?
As of the writing of this review, the top listing that comes up on Google for a review of this book was written by another author of speculative fiction, Amal El-Mohtar, for NPR. I’d like to leave you with a full quote of the third paragraph of her (overwhelmingly positive) review:
“There are things in one’s life that are best appreciated from a distance, and this book is one of them.”
I completely agree with this statement. Enjoy it from afar. In fact, leave it on the shelf in the store, or at the library. Enjoy the view of the pretty cover art. Smile at the knowledge that the author has had the opportunity to be in the spotlight for a short period of time with the help of his own bootstrapping, and then turn away and completely forget this utter shambles of a tale poorly told. You’ll thank me for it.
- Recommended Age: 18+ for everything
- Language: Strong and frequent and frequently annoying (repetitive phrases across all characters)
- Violence: Grisly descriptions and violent/bloody detail. Violence against children.
- Sex: Frequent, strong, and in-your-face. Violence against children, incest, bestiality. It just didn't stop.
The story includes themes of violence against homosexuals and violence (physical and sexual) against children.