I have had every book that Marlon James has ever written on my TBR (and, for most of them, on my shelves) for years. I’ve heard his writing is amazing and the stories are intense and affecting, but for some reason this mood reader has just never been in the mood. And then BLRW was published. And it’s more my genre (fantasy) and then it was a National Book Award finalist this year. And I decided that it was (finally) time to try some James.
Tracker is known for his “nose,” his ability to locate and return lost objects (and people). When he is approached with a mission to find a young boy, he breaks his personal rule of working alone and finds himself on a team of like-minded (though practically very different in approach) hunters. It’s a group of strangers and outcasts, magically gifted and otherwise, and events escalate throughout the course of the book as Tracker learns that there is much more to this “lost boy” than he was originally told.
Whoa. To be honest, I am not even sure where to start with this review. This novel was incredibly complex, in ways both enjoyable and completely confusing. Let me start with the fact that I loved the combination of history, mythology, legend and culture that James creates. It’s atmospheric like almost nothing I have ever read before. And it’s also weird AF. The scope is massive, containing multiple worlds both real and imagined and a cast of characters that is long and detailed. It’s incredibly ambitious. And in a number of ways, I think James achieved what he set out to with that ambition. There were times when I got totally lost in the journey alongside Tracker and, for me, that’s always a mark of a well written novel. The development of the characters was skillful and incredibly detailed, while the world itself was richly imagined and lush in description.
However, on the other hand, I also felt overwhelmed from beginning to end. There were a many moments while reading (and I both listened to the audiobook – the narrator was phenomenal – and had a physical copy on hand for reference) that I simply got completely confused and lost. Monologues that went for minutes/pages that I couldn’t follow the meaning of, neither in general nor within the context of the story. And after finishing, I’m not even totally sure that mattered for my overall comprehension of the plot development or understanding of character arcs…which indicates to me that maybe it wasn’t necessary in the first place? The “mystery” of the lost boy was very complicated, with numerous twists and turns and betrayals, that, because of the language, I didn’t always follow. And clearly neither did Tracker, because I often found him repeating the story to others that he met during the “hunt” to try and figure it all out himself – which helped me as a reader to follow, but if it was necessary that many times, maybe it wasn’t clearly enough described in the first place? Idk – maybe we were supposed to be confused and slowly learn alongside Tracker, which did happen, but in a way that I never truly felt I had a grasp on, which is a frustrating reading experience. Also, many of Tracker’s interpersonal relationships were….difficult (I definitely understood why he often worked alone). And that’s fine. But similar to the plot twists, the reasons why his relationships went bad were not always clear and I felt like I was constantly trying to reach for something just outside my intellectual grasp, which made for an exhausting reading experience. Plus, there was quite a heavy focus on gore, violence, sex (specifically, the penis) – it showed up constantly and consistently – to the extent that it began to feel gratuitous. And I was over it by the end. (*Side note – this is very poorly marketed and I think that’s a huge part of the reason for the general negative reviews and my personal misconceptions about what it’s about and the mindset I was in when I started to read this. If you’re looking for traditional epic fantasy…this is not it. It’s epic, but not in a remotely similar way to customary fantasy fare.*)
There may be spoilers here, so beware, but also, maybe not really, because I don’t think I could really spoil this book if I was trying to – it’s just not concrete enough for that. Anyways, after finishing I almost had to laugh a little. This massive book (24 hours of audiobook and over 600 pages) was literally like – a horror vampire/monster story? I have no idea what I was expecting, but that was not it. Now, kudos to James for taking what’s not usually an award-winning genre and creating something award-worthy (at least according to legit literary critics) with it. That’s impressive. But also, really? It’s like a giant joke on the serious literary community. (Also for the record, I do prefer my traditional and YA vampire stories.) Anyways, I thought it was really cool, truly fascinating, to see this popular “monster,” along with a number of other/additional monsters, from a new perspective, through the lens of African mythology and James’ imagination combined. It was unique and graphically violent/creepy. And I appreciated the original spin. I also am definitely inspired to go look up other books based on/around African folklore, etc. (I’m open to any suggestions, if you want to drop them in a comment!)
So yea – I have so many thoughts and reactions to this novel that I am nowhere near unpacking. This review kinda skims the surface and hopefully gives you at least a little insight into what you’d be getting if you pick this up: disturbing monsters, long sections of world and character building, gorgeously flowing language and writing, a super complex set of relationships, violent interactions and torture (including of a sexual nature – TW for that), an indefinable plot, and in-depth exploration of Tracker’s character (though in a way that won’t ever fully make sense/be clear). I really enjoyed the cultural and magical influences and pieces of the story. And yet, I’m not even close to sold on the overall final product – there was just too much that I didn’t understand. It all felt elusive in a way that wasn’t worth the effort to pin down and I felt relieved when it was over (never a good sign). I will say that while I still plan to pick up a regular contemporary piece by James one day – there was enough here that I objectively understood as spectacular that I want to give him work another chance. But I don’t plan to read the rest of this trilogy – it won’t be worth it for me.