Page count: 620 | Published: 2019 | Rating: 5 stars!
‘The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.’
Tracker is a hunter, known throughout the thirteen kingdoms as one who has a nose – and he always works alone. But he breaks his own rule when, hired to find a lost child, he finds himself part of a group of hunters all searching for the same boy. Each of these companions is stranger and more dangerous than the last, from a giant to a witch to a shape-shifting Leopard, and each has secrets of their own.
As the mismatched gang follow the boy’s scent from perfumed citadels to infested rivers to the enchanted darklands and beyond, set upon at every turn by creatures intent on destroying them, Tracker starts to wonder: who really is this mysterious boy? Why do so many people want to stop him being found? And, most important of all, who is telling the truth and who is lying?
Marlon James weaves a tapestry of breathtaking adventure through a world at once ancient and startlingly modern. And, against this exhilarating backdrop of magic and violence, he explores the fundamentals of truth, the limits of power, the excesses of ambition, and our need to understand them all.
“What kind of a story would the griots tell of you? You are no story. A man of use to no one. A man no one depends on, no one trusts. You drift like spirits and devils and even their drift is with purpose.” Page 234
I absolutely loved this book but I know many people won’t. It’s too violent, they’ll say; too much graphic sex, they’ll bemoan; the dialogue and grammar is hard to follow, they’ll howl! And to be totally honest they’ll be right; did they expect anything less from a fantasy novel, set in ancient sub-Saharan Africa (mainly the West and Central regions), steeped in folklore/mythology and written by an author who consistently delivers well-researched authentic narratives?
BLRW isn’t an easy read – if you’re expecting to follow a flawless band of characters embarking on a whimsical ‘save the day’ journey across Africa then this isn’t the book for you; the violence (physical and sexual) will trigger a visceral reaction, so proceed with caution. It took me at least 100 pages to feel confident that I knew what was going on; this. isn’t. a. book. you. can. read. passively. It’s the literary equivalent of ‘Inception’ – a story made up of other interconnected stories, all narrated by our main protagonist Tracker (a hat tip to African oral storytelling traditions).
The overarching plot doesn’t stray too far from tried and tested fantasy tropes (think ‘Lord of the Rings’) – a group of random individuals are brought together, tasked with finding a missing child; failure to do so in time = doom, devastation, end of the world as we know it. There are murmurings about an impending war between Kings but BLRW doesn’t focus on the ‘game of thrones’. Centre stage belongs to a group of misfits – a man able to track people by their scent (Tracker), a melancholy giant (Ogo), a shape-shifting man/leopard (Leopard), a 300+ year old witch (Sologon) – they treat each other with contempt, squabble and bicker constantly but are fully formed and complex.
Tracker is instantly unlikeable; always angry, combative, aloof and untrustworthy. His outward display of rage is countered and undermined by his many moments of introspection – he’s far more tender and thoughtful than he lets on, a side effect of sorts when those you encounter only want to use you for your nose. Tracker is, to date, James’ most balanced protagonist, both he and the book were an absolute joy to read (his retorts regularly had me cracking up).
I’ll go out on a limb and say that BLRW is the book that best demonstrates James’ range and skill – it’s so different to his previous works (minus the violence and the obvious extensive research). Of the authors I’ve read he’s one of a handful that can flip from historical/literary fiction to fantasy, with ease (this in itself reinforces his own view that genres are limiting and meaningless). I also appreciate that he includes ‘voices/experiences’ that are often misconstrued or under-represented in literature (i.e. gender fluidity, gay love/sex, disabled children); in a way that doesn’t feel exploitative or added purely for social commentary.
BLRW is unlike any other book I’ve recently read – it’s challenging, exciting and refreshing. If you plan on picking it up do so with an open mind, pace yourself and do your own research on any element that’s unfamiliar (words/phrases/ narrative style). You won’t regret it!
Disclaimer – I received an ARC from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.