Black Leopard, Red Wolf

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a 2019 fantasy novel by Jamaican writer Marlon James.[1][2] It is the first book of a planned trilogy. The novel draws on African history and mythology, blended into the landscape of the North Kingdom and the South Kingdom, and the political tensions between these two warring states, as well as various city-states and tribes in the surrounding landscape. The rights to produce a film adaptation were purchased by Michael B. Jordan in February 2019 prior to release of the book.[3]

Black Leopard, Red Wolf
Black Leopard, Red Wolf.png
AuthorMarlon James
PublisherRiverhead Books
Publication date
February 5, 2019


The plot, narrated in flashback and with non-chronological episodes, centers on the character of Tracker, a man known far and wide for his skills as a hunter: "He has a nose," people say. Engaged on a tracking quest by the slaver Amadu Kasawura, to find a mysterious boy who disappeared three years earlier in the North Kingdom, 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. Over nine years, Tracker’s trials connect him with the Leopard, a shape-shifting hunter and Fumeli his bowman; Nyka, a skin-shedding mercenary (both of whom are former lovers of Tracker); the Sangoma, a divinatory healer who protects cast out children and cast a protective charm on Tracker and taught him minor spells; a centuries-old Moon Witch named Sogolon; a giant called an Ogo that they call Sadogo; a prefect soldier named Mossi that "smells of myrrh" and appears to be sexually attracted to Tracker; and dozens more. The band in the quest is a hodgepodge full of unusual characters with secrets of their own. The plot of the book is largely framed as a conversation between Tracker and a captor of his, with Tracker narrating his life and the quest non-linearly. Several shifts occur throughout the novel, leading to a seemingly intentional obfuscation of the narrative and plot. The larger plot involves political tensions between different tribes, as well as historical and mounting tensions between the North Kingdom and the South Kingdom.

As Tracker follows the boy's scent—from one ancient city to another; into dense forests and across deep rivers—he and the band are set upon by creatures intent on destroying them. These fantastical creatures and figures include the Omoluzu, roof-walking "night demons from an age before this age", bultungin (were-hyenas), a creature called the Aesi who sends assassins made of dust and can telekinetically control masses of people, an impundulu (which drains victims blood, turning them into zombies filled with lightning) who may have kidnapped the boy to use as bait to enter the homes of victims, a minor water goddess/potential water demon/trickster named Bunshi, and more. Other supernatural elements of the novel include the Darklands, where dangerous creatures live and time and distance are seemingly irrelevant, and the Ten and Nine Doors, magically linked doorways scattered throughout the North Kingdom and surrounding territory that both Tracker's "fellowship" and their enemies use to move quickly. Throughout the novel, 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?


Themes that the novel explores include the fundamentals of truths, the limits of power, the excesses of ambition, desire, Machiavellianism, duty and honor. James offers a clue to his underlying theme early on in the saga: “Truth changes shape just as the crocodile eats away the moon.”


James began writing the book during a sabbatical from his teaching job.[2] In August 2016, after researching and fleshing out characters for a year, James had filled ten notebooks with thoughts and notes, but did not have a plot. During a conversation with Melina Matsoukas, Matsoukas mentioned the television series The Affair to James, who drew inspiration from its Rashomon-style shifts in perspective. Each volume in the trilogy will reflect a different perspective on the same events.[4][5] James completed approximately one hundred pages of the novel before the end of the fall semester in 2016, having begun writing at the beginning of the semester.

Before the book's release, James referred to the planned trilogy as "African Game of Thrones". He later said that the description was a joke.[6]


Michael B. Jordan purchased the rights to produce a film adaptation of the novel in February 2019.[3] James has expressed curiosity about a potential adaptation, and the challenges associated with one, saying that: "[... he thinks] our cinematic language of sci-fi and fantasy is still very European—particularly fantasy. And [his] book is not even remotely European."[7]


The review aggregator website Book Marks reported that 53% of critics gave the book a "rave" review, whilst 38% and 6% of the critics expressed "positive" or "mixed" impressions, respectively. Another 3% of the critics "panned" the book, based on a sample of 34 reviews.[8]

Writing for NPR, Amal El-Mohtar said that comparisons to J.R.R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin: "[...] are wildly inaccurate to the experience of reading this book."[9] She described the book as similar to "[...] more like if Toni Morrison had written Ovid's Metamorphoses."

In October 2019 Black Leopard, Red Wolf was named a finalist in the National Book Award for Fiction.[10]

The book was named one of the top ten books of 2019 by The Washington Post''.[11]


  1. ^ Weir, Keziah (1 February 2019). "Marlon James Finds Inspiration in Greek Tragedy, Ethiopian redoubts, and The Affair". Vanity Fair.
  2. ^ a b Tolentino, Jia (28 January 2019). "Why Marlon James Decided to Write an African "Game of Thrones"". The New Yorker.
  3. ^ a b Lang, Brent (6 February 2019). "Michael B. Jordan, Warner Bros. Nab Film Rights to 'Black Leopard, Red Wolf'". Variety. Retrieved 11 February 2019. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  4. ^ Miller, Laura (12 February 2019). "Marlon James' Superpower". Slate. Retrieved 19 February 2019. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  5. ^ Grady, Constance (6 February 2019). "Black Leopard Red Wolf was sold as an African Game of Thrones. It's a weirder book than that". Vox. Retrieved 11 February 2019. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  6. ^ Shapiro, Lila. "A Conversation With Marlon James and Victor LaValle". Vulture. New York Magazine. Retrieved 5 February 2019. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  7. ^ Eddy, Cheryl (4 February 2019). "Marlon James Talks Superheroes, the Joy of Fantasy, and His Stunning New Book Black Leopard, Red Wolf". io9. Retrieved 11 February 2019. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  8. ^ "Black Leopard, Red Wolf". Book Marks. Retrieved 20 March 2019.
  9. ^ El-Mohtar, Amal (8 February 2019). "'Black Leopard, Red Wolf' Is A Beast Of A Book". NPR. Retrieved 11 February 2019. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  10. ^ "The 2019 National Book Awards Finalists Announced". National Book Foundation. 2019-10-07. Retrieved 2019-10-09.
  11. ^ "Best Books of 2019". The Washington Post. 21 November 2019. Retrieved 26 November 2019. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)