Welcome to Camp ToB 2019, the summer reading program from the Tournament of Books! All summer long, we’re reading six works of fiction from 2019—two books per month, two weeks per book—that you chose by popular vote. Each week we read half of one novel, then meet here on Wednesdays, joined in the booth by a member of the Commentariat—our Activity Leaders, in Camp parlance—to discuss our progress through each book. At the end of each month you decide which of the two books we just read advances to our end-of-summer championship, where you make the ultimate call on which of our three finalists wins an automatic berth in the 2020 Tournament of Books.
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Rosecrans Baldwin: Campers, it’s time to wind things up. Remember, start of the summer, when we joked about molasses disasters in Bowlaway? The demands of a beach read versus something weightier in Daisy Jones & the Six? Weren’t those the days. Because now we’ve come to our final book, our longest book, what arguably will be our most difficult book (we’ll get into that) with Marlon James’s speculative epic Black Leopard, Red Wolf—a book so complicated I had to read it twice just to lead today’s and next week’s discussions, which means a strangely large chunk of my summer has been dedicated to 1,200 pages of some of the goriest fantasy I’ve ever read (we’ll get into that, too).
Anyway. The point is, we’re one book and one vote away from the end of Camp ToB 2019 and our big, end-of-summer finale, when you’ll vote again, one last time, to decide which of our summer finalists earns a spot in the 2020 Tournament of Books. Whew!
This week we’re discussing the first half of Black Leopard, through page 242. The book is part one in a three-book series, in which James plans to tell basically the same story each time, but from different points of view. “The next story’s gonna be told by some 315-year-old witch, and she’s got a lot of shit on her chest,” he said in an interview.
For those who haven’t read the book, fair warning: This novel is chock-full of complicated plot, dozens of characters, and invented settings. There’s good reason it comes complete with many maps (drawn by James) and an index of characters. I’ll try to summarize: in a fantasy land that resembles the African continent, full of mad kings, witches, and slavery, in an undated time period that appears to be the Iron Age, a man named Tracker, called such because he has a nose so powerful he can smell you miles away, is enlisted to track down a mysterious, missing boy. Who may or may not be a MacGuffin. And along the way we encounter many of Tracker’s companions, principally another mercenary named Leopard, a shapeshifter who can change from man to cat, and many enemies that include blood drinkers, flesh eaters, necromancers, a giant batman full of lightning—a lot of them were inspired by actual mythology from various African nations—and it’s all a huge, messy, complicated story that involves a ton of carnage, rape, and bodily fluids spewed about. Whew (the redux)!
To help with this week’s discussion, Activity Leader Robyn Bardgett joins us around the campfire from the island of Bermuda. Robyn, please introduce yourself.
Robyn Bardgett: Hello, fellow campers! I was born and raised in Bermuda, which is not to be confused with any B-named Caribbean islands. We are nowhere near the Caribbean, but about 580 nautical miles off the coast of North Carolina. I’m a freelance writer, which means I procrastinate all day getting my kids ready for school or doing the laundry, or taking the dog for a walk. During moments of productivity, I write articles, mostly for the local paper. Unfortunately, I do not spend my days on the beach with a book. However, I did categorize this exercise as “good procrastination,” so there was more daytime reading than normal.
Rosecrans: How long have you been Rooster-acquainted?
Robyn: I started following the Tournament of Books in 2011 when I couldn’t find anyone to discuss A Visit From the Good Squad. After much internet rabbit-holing, I stumbled upon the ToB and its unique approach to finding the year’s best books, and I have been a fan ever since.
Rosecrans: Well, this is going to be one heck of a rabbit hole. Broadly, the structure of the novel has Tracker narrating different parts of his life to an unknown listener, whom Tracker calls the “inquisitor” (we don’t know why), who’s sharing a prison cell of some kind. I’ll be honest and say that it took me a while to get into this book, but then I got very hooked. I’ll share my thoughts about that, but what were your first impressions?
Robyn: I’d been looking forward to the release of this book ever since James announced he was writing an “African Game of Thrones” way back in 2015. I had never read Game of Thrones but was watching the show at that time. I was also in the middle of reading James’s Man Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings, which was not an easy book but left me intrigued. James’s writing is captivating, and this book already doesn’t disappoint. Not gonna lie, this is still hard work, and probably even more so knowing I was going to be discussing it with real live ToB fans, but I’m thrilled with this story so far. I was “in” the minute I read that final sentence in the first chapter. After you read that sentence, did you look up?
Rosecrans: The sentence being: “I know the thought that just ran through you. And all stories are true. Above us is a roof.” To unpack that for the reader, Tracker has just told a story about the Omoluzu, some roof-crawling shadow assassins who stalk their prey endlessly, who make it so you can never stay under a roof again. I read that line outside in a friend’s backyard, so I couldn’t look up at a ceiling potentially crawling with assassins—but I did think, oh shit.
Robyn: It’s moments like that that keep me hooked. And there are many rewarding moments because the book is so clever with words, which I think helps buoy the story through the darker parts.
Rosecrans: The writing and voice—for Tracker and for when the narration’s more omniscient—really is wonderful, but it’s not the easiest to read. Articles are dropped, speakers aren’t named, references are made to events prior and future that require thoughtful guessing. In the mid ‘90s I studied modern and contemporary pan-African poetry for a semester at the University of Cape Town, in South Africa, and I’ll suggest—based on sparse study and knowledge—that the voices here often feel pan-African to me, or at least not Western, not “Oriental.” The story, especially when we’re not in a battle scene, is beguiling, confusing, entrancing, off-putting, on-putting. This is a genre novel that defies genre expectations—one of which, at least for fantasy and horror, in my opinion, could be the assumption that genre books can be consumed fast. Whereas this is a novel that rewards careful, slow reading. The slower you go, it becomes even better. Do not read this book with a couple of beers on a sunny afternoon and expect to wake up from your nap remembering anything.
Incidentally, James reportedly made that GoT reference as a joke, but I still think it’s a pretty good way to describe the novel to someone offhand, even if the experience of reading it has almost nothing to do with watching the families of Westeros.
Let’s talk about Tracker as a narrator, with his all-powerful nose. He’s a foul-mouthed, soft-hearted mercenary good with axes and also intuiting when someone’s lying to him (one of his eyeballs is mysteriously not human). He’s also powerfully attracted to the Leopard, both as a friend and an object of love and lust, and also the “mingi” children that he and Leopard help to rescue early in the story—kids born with characteristics that make them vulnerable to people who’d do them harm, like being albino, being as tall as a giraffe, being shaped like a ball. Leopard says at one point, “Tracker, you are nothing but strange looks. Nothing is ever hidden from your face, no matter how much you try to mask it. It’s how I can judge where your heart is with people. You are the world’s worst liar and the only face I trust.” How do you find Tracker? Sympathetic? Unappealing?
Robyn: I don’t think Tracker’s vulnerability is evident until we see him through other characters’ eyes. When he’s relaying his story to his inquisitor, he’s been through lots of dark stuff. Knowing James I’m sure we’ve only just hit the tip of the iceberg of the crap he’s going to endure through this series—
Rosecrans: Yeah, no shit!
Robyn: —and he’s built up a wall because of that. There’s a lot of repeated reminders that “nobody loves no one,” and that there’s nothing that Tracker fights for, particularly once he finds out more about his very messy family tree and feels like he has nothing left to lose. But even though he leaves the surviving mingi children behind, it was apparent Tracker was affected by the deaths [many mingi are killed during a raid by Tracker’s uncle—ed.] and that he doesn’t “want to become the kind of man who was never disturbed by such news” when his uncle tells him about how the children screamed when they were locked in the burning hut as he’s about to kill him.
Rosecrans: Let me interrupt and say, for anyone who isn’t reading the book, I’d pause to unpack that story around the uncle and the burning huts, but if I did we’d be here all day, because the plot in this novel is ludicrously overstuffed and there will be plenty more screaming and burning and messed-up families to come.
Robyn: Tracker’s relationship with Leopard is curious. Is he in love with him? I’m not sure if I’ve missed some more subtle (or perhaps not so subtle?!) clue to the shift in their relationship when they’re about to set off on the journey to find the missing boy, or maybe it’s really just as simple as some sort of jealousy toward Fumeli [Leopard’s errand boy, bow-and-arrow carrier, and lover —ed.] and his close relationship with Leopard. Do you think there also might be some lack of awareness of those emotional cues from Leopard because he is more animal than human?
Rosecrans: That’s a good question. I think Leopard’s feline nature does lead him to less introspection, more basic satisfaction of carnal desires, if only in the way James repeatedly mentions Leopard’s love of hot blood in his meals? I think Tracker is much in love with Leopard, and I respect how many sides to that love James covers—the unrequited, the annoyed, the secret, the admiring, the crushing.
Also, fuck the gods, as Tracker would say, but this novel is a lot—a rip-roaring quest, a shaggy-dog bildungsroman, a gay romance odyssey, a medieval picaresque about guys being guys and witches being witches. Have you found it confusing? For me, it’s been dizzying to take in. I have to keep rereading just to stay on track. With the clusterfuck of peoples, cities, secrets, ogres, things that ooze down from ceilings or erupt from the earth, not to mention questionable accounts. I mean, once in a while Tracker or somebody else tries to summarize events, to keep us grounded, but it’s rarely much help. And the narrator/author would appear to be making it deliberately tough on us, which I’m loving, but also hating, but also loving?
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
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 scent, he 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? And why do so many people want to keep Tracker from finding him? (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Book description excerpted from publisher’s summary and edited for length.
Robyn: I’ve had to go back and reread sections, and I’m constantly referencing the extensive character list and maps. But despite that, I am enjoying seeing it coming together.
Rosecrans: Totally. And it satisfies on a lot of levels—the depths of literary fiction, the surfaces of myth and allegory. Like Amal El-Mohtar said, this novel is a lot more of a Toni Morrison x Ovid collab than Tolkien/George R. R. Martin mashup, right? (That wonderful Namwali Serpell essay about Morrison’s “difficulty” seems apt.) My primary conclusion: in this book, readers have to work. Because you don’t know what’s coming next. Time will shift all of a sudden and the narrative skips ahead by years. Or a new chapter begins, and we’re in a new place, new period, new people. I’ve had to keep notes as I go along just to keep track of the plot, and I’m still struggling. Mostly it’s a lot of question marks.
Robyn: I think the storytelling is there for me even if I’m struggling through the many storylines and backgrounds and worldbuilding. While there is a lot of flipping back and forth through time, all of it has been gripping and has left me wanting to know more. I’m just as curious as Tracker’s search party as to why this boy is such a big deal.
Robyn: Are they all in this just for money or is there something else that these individuals want to discover about the boy? What are you hoping is going to be resolved in the second half of the book?
Rosecrans: I don’t know. Everything? Nothing? I mean, I haven’t read a book this good (it is often excellent), this slapdash (it is often maddening), this demanding, this fun, this sexy, this anti-sexy, this disgusting and vile—since… I don’t know. I don’t. Maybe The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt, but swapping out all of her polymathy for James’s mutilation of flesh?
Here’s something: Does this novel feel macho to you? It’s mostly been a story of men about men. And there’s definitely sexism in it and misogynists, though it doesn’t appear to be a misogynistic book. For women, there are some witches on the side, I guess, mostly conniving, and the Glenda-Goodwitch-like Sangoma, but otherwise it’s been pretty dude-heavy so far.
Robyn: There is plenty of bravado, but I think that lends more to the immediacy of the danger here. There isn’t a lot of time for gentleness and compassion when there are beasts and war to contend with. Although we get small glimpses of it. Tracker is concerned about the fate of the mingi children and that does seem to plague him.
Rosecrans: Right. And Tracker is feminine in his own way. (Commentariat, go at it; I don’t have space here to break it down.) I’ll say that Tracker does seem to be the one character who, oddly enough for someone so unafraid of slaughter, has the most heart.
Robyn: I’d love to see more bad-ass female characters. I feel like Nsaka Ne Vampi is promising. [One of Tracker’s search party —ed.] From the get-go she isn’t interested in putting up with anyone’s shit and she’s willing to take her own path and not follow anyone. I do enjoy the sexual fluidity of the characters. You never know who they’re going to end up with—is it a man, a woman, a beast? Do we care? I like that we don’t need to.
Rosecrans: It’s refreshing. So, by the end of the first half, Tracker and Leopard and their motley X-Men-like search party have set off to find the boy. I want to turn it over to the Commentariat in a second, because there’s so many things here to discuss this week and next, but let’s talk about brutality for a moment. This story is gruesome, though not in a pornographic way, I don’t think—but it seems to be ramping up, the further we get into the story. Will it become pornographic? Sometimes it feels like there are only three types of scenes in this novel: a rape scene; a fight/gore/horror scene; or Tracker and somebody else, often Leopard, trying to figure out what the hell is going on after they’ve just met someone new and weird. In which case GoT does come to mind, with all of its soapy, one-on-one dialogue moments. Here’s my question: does all the flesh wrenching and Zogbanu porn feel warranted to you? Is it valuable?
Robyn: When GoT was ending I saw a lot of comments in my social feeds about why people had either stopped watching the series or had never been interested in watching it. Mostly because of the extreme violence, much of it needless, particularly toward women. Yes it was gratuitous and in some cases here it is as well. There’s a lot of violence mixed up in the pleasure and one has to wonder if it is all for the shock value, or have we become so desensitized to violence, both real and imagined, that the boundaries have to continually be pushed and to such a degree?
Rosecrans: It’s a good question. And there have been moments in this book when I basically regretted reading it. Where the horror had less to do with being tempted by something scary, with being seduced so to speak, and more about debasement. I mean, when the hyenas had Tracker trapped (reader, don’t ask), I had to stop reading for a couple days.
Robyn: There is this malevolent underpinning to the story. While it’s a world that is filled with monsters, shape shifters and witches, it’s still rooted in both an historical and everyday context. Much of what goes on in the story has happened and probably still happens around the world.
Rosecrans: Yes, a hundred times.
Robyn: Women’s bodies are constantly in danger. Speaking to the inquisitor early on, Tracker says, “Man will pay for this.” He’s talking specifically about female genital mutilation, and that the gods had gifted woman this ability for pleasure. So I wonder if there is some retribution to come against the evils in this world. I don’t see anyone emerging yet who is trying to change that narrative, so I don’t think we’ll get a Frodo-like hero here.
Rosecrans: Good point. Though there’s certainly a lot of inversions happening, which may be better discussed next week. E.g., the evil “white scientists” that made me think of the malevolence historically attached to “black magic.”
Robyn: Do you think there will be a hero, or is this going to be a fight-to-survive type of tale? Do we need a hero? Am I thinking too much on the traditional fantasy epic side? If nothing else, these characters are multidimensional!
Rosecrans: Right? I really don’t know. I think one concern I have, with all of the limb-hacking and penis/anus/vagina violation, is that I’m going to get deadened. That I’ll be desensitized and bored. It’s a long book! I mean, I have a feeling we’ll see Tracker evolve by the end, but by how much? He certainly has a lot of reasons at the start to be cynical. I remember thinking when I finished the first half, I really don’t want to be disappointed by the end of this book.
Anyway, what a story! What a novel! What a mindfuck! Readers, tell us what you think, and try to limit the discussion to the book’s first half. Are you exhilarated? Are you frustrated? Are you equally exhilarated and frustrated? And were you pissed to hell about Bibi? Are you all-in for Team Sadogo? Are you wondering if you and Bunshi would be BFFs IRL? Please let us know.
The Camp ToB 2019 Calendar
- June 5: Bowlaway through page 172
- June 12: Bowlaway to the end
- June 19: Daisy Jones & the Six through page 151 (finish “The Numbers Tour” section)
- June 26: Daisy Jones & the Six to the end
- July 3: VACATION
- July 10: Lost Children Archive through page 186 (finish part 1, or chapter 11 on audio)
- July 17: Lost Children Archive to the end
- July 24: Trust Exercise through page 131 (finish part 1, or chapter 5 on audio)
- July 31: Trust Exercise to the end
- Aug. 7: American Spy through page 141 (finish chapter 12, or chapter 13 on audio)
- Aug. 14: American Spy to the end
- Aug. 21: Black Leopard, Red Wolf through page 243 (finish chapter 2)
- Aug. 28: Black Leopard, Red Wolf to the end
- Sept. 4: Announce summer champion