Category Archives: Hamish Hamilton

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

BLRW Title: Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Dark Star Trilogy)
Author: Marlon James
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241315583
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 640
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Black Leopard Red Wolf is a piece of art – it needs to be read with such intensity and focus. This came to be as I went along with the read, it sort of grows on you and then you are hooked. I might gush right now, however, you just cannot read it in one sitting – you need time to devour it, embrace it, and most importantly love it. A lot of people have compared it to Tolkien or GRR Martin’s works but let me also tell you that it is extremely different from any of those writers’ creation. It is for one set in several worlds – each complete in their own and not so much – it challenges the reader at every step to figure and know more, only to turn back the pages to make the connect between places and people.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf may not also be everyone’s cup of tea. Having said that, I would urge everyone who has little interest in literature to read it – only to be aware of what literature is and what it can achieve. With the sheer style of writing, that almost changes with every chapter, the crumbs of information left here and there for the reader to pick up on, and more than anything else it achieves to bring out a lot of emotions in the reader. From love to envy to desire (raging at that), to sometimes even anger towards situations and people caught in it, you just can’t get enough of BLRW.

BLRW is high-fantasy, it is also a book that challenges you, your world, the way you think, and how you most commonly perceive the world to be. It makes you see ancient worlds seeped in African myths that perhaps you weren’t aware of. So in that sense, it also makes you go down the rabbit hole of mythology that makes you a more-aware person at the end of it. For instance, the way James writes about the Anansi Tales or the Sundiata Epic and makes it a part of his story, is what most writers might have struggled with. And it is only the beginning – the first in the Dark Star trilogy, at around six hundred and twenty pages.

What is the book about?

The book is set in several ancient kingdoms. It is the quest for a missing boy. Tracker is one of the questers who has been hired by a mysterious figure to bring the boy back, given the fate of a kingdom. You get to realize this only when you are halfway through the book. So wait for it, and even then James doesn’t give it all away. Tracker isn’t the only one who has been hired. It is a motley crew – a chatty giant, a shape-shifting leopard, a witch, a buffalo, a girl raised to be the food of the ogres, and a water goddess who melts into puddles. Tracker is known for his nose. His nose is known to lead him to any missing person. This is all I shall reveal about him for now. Also, where Tracker is from? Where are the other characters, what is their role to play in this quest, etc are questions that I am sure will be answered in the remaining two parts of the trilogy.

The group dynamics are what one would expect – there is humour, there is conflict – sometimes with little or no resolution, and there is a camaraderie of sorts between them. Marlon’s Tracker and Leopard might be linked to Achilles and Patroclus, but they have so much more rage, fury, and desire.

Also, might I add that the start of the book gives you a list of 80 characters that will appear and reappear throughout the book or the trilogy in this case. While this is intimidating, it is most certainly very helpful to go back to time and again. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is violent, it is not your usual comfort-food story that is based on folktales that heal you. Men, women, and children are raped to death and that in a way only brings out the tenderness of the protagonist. While African mythology is largely at its base, plot, and structure, it is also earthy, salted with stunning chase and fight scenes, unfolding at a very leisurely pace. Marlon James’ world is superlatively unique and that’s what makes Black Leopard, Red Wolf so darn refreshing. I honestly don’t think that it can be compared to any works of high-fantasy. The worlds built – shape and reshape as you the reader, goes along with the book. There are surprises and shocks along the way that make the story tumble on its head, making you wonder as the reader if you ever got it right to begin with.

Might I also add that the queer perspective of the book is brilliant. I have not in my reading of fantasy literature come across a prominent queer protagonist (there are many on the surface and as sidebars to the protagonist, but just someone as complete as Tracker for sure, I haven’t) and Marlon James nails it down pat. The love so to say between Tracker and Leopard is of magnanimous proportions and that can only be understood once you are one-third into the book. For me as a queer reader, it was overwhelming, and full of love. It was the kind of love that I was searching for in fantasy literature but hardly found it and I am extremely glad that Marlon James wrote about it.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a novel that resists categorisation and classification of any kind and rightly so. It is set in a world that is researched brilliantly given the myths handed down from Central and West Africa. It is a world that does not conform to gender. It breaks it to the core. It is a world of political corruption, queer identity, and love and some glorious sex while we are at it, between black men.

A lot of care and thought has gone in the making of these characters. Marlon James really couldn’t be bothered with the relatability aspect, and yet as a reader he leaves it all up to you. Queer love to me is at the heart of this novel – it is beautiful in every single way and stands up against patriarchy. Also, the following two books are versions of the same elements told by other characters – almost like a Rashomon style of telling the story. Yes, there are black fantasy writers such as N.K. Jemisin (whose Broken Earth trilogy also has queer characters), and Walter Mosley, and even Nalo Hopkinson to name a few, however none of them were or are able to bring out the aspect of race and queer identity in the same way that James has.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is to be read for its dejected women – who are brave and fearless and will make their voices heard. Read it for the thrill, adventure, and quest that will grab you by the throat at every single page and not let you go. The plot intricacies that will make you want to reread it at least once more. Read it because it is subtle, in your face, loud, violent, and sexy. You must read it because it is the best you will read this year. Or at least, one of the best. 

Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith

Feel Free - Essays by Zadie Smith Title: Feel Free: Essays
Author: Zadie Smith
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House
ISBN: 978-0241146897
Genre: Essays, Non-Fiction
Pages: 464
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

My association with the works of Zadie Smith started somewhere in 2003, with White Teeth. It was one of those books that are actually unputdownable (I have always been of the opinion that terms such as these are nothing but marketing gimmicks). Since then, Smith has been one of my favourite writers and with good reason. Her prose is like biting into a plum – tart and sweet and almost awakens you from your stupor. It makes you stand up and take notice of how the world works and perhaps what it always was. Smith doesn’t mince her words. Her characters are everyday people who speak their mind and this is also reflective in her new collection of essays, aptly or ironically (given the world we live in) titled, “Feel Free”.

“Feel Free” to me is one of the books of our times. The kind of book that doesn’t preach but makes so many relevant points that you want to see the world and put it so eloquently as Smith does. It is the collection of essays which are spread over five sections – In the World, In the Audience, In the Gallery, On the Bookshelf and Feel Free. These sections pose questions that we recognize and perhaps want answers to: What is the Social Network? What is joy and what is the tolerance of it, if there is something like it? How many kinds of boredom make up life? Who owns the narrative of black America? There are many such questions over a diverse range of topics and that’s what makes Zadie’s essays stand out.

Feel Free speaks of pop culture, culture, social change, political debate, the ever-changing fabric of society and what it really means to be human in the 21st century. Some of these essays have appeared before and some are new. At the same time, all of them are relevant and essential to most areas of our lives.

Smith’s essays are sometimes written with the perspective of an insider, but mostly she is an outsider looking in. It isn’t difficult to understand Smith and to me that was the most brilliant aspect of this collection. For instance, when she writes about a book, you want to get up and go read it. When she speaks of Joni Mitchell, you just want to listen to “River” and “Circle Game” on loop. To me, that is the power of great writing.

Essays are often tough to read and since they are so personal in nature, it becomes even more difficult to gauge the place they are coming from. This does not happen when you are reading “Feel Free”. Zadie’s essays are personal and yet appeal to all. The universal quality of her words is too strong to not be understood and related to. “Feel Free” is the collection of essays that needs to be savoured and pondered on. The one that you will not forget easily.

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie Title: Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights
Author: Salman Rushdie
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0670088485
Genre: Literary Fiction, Magic Realism
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Salman Rushdie is back after seven years to what he does best – tell a story. And not just tell a story but tell it across time, across eons perhaps, across everything and beyond your imagination. “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights” – the word play on the title itself, adding to 1001 is in itself an indication of the master of words being back in his game. This book is different and yet so similar to his earlier books. Let’s look at what is similar and what is not, without giving away too much of the plot.

In context to his other books, here is what sets apart this one: The tone is way too mature and yet edged with wry humour, which was very evident in The Satanic Verses as well. At the same time, the feeling of alienation can be felt which was the case in “Fury”. The magnitude of “Midnight’s Children” is most certainly present, but what is lacking is more of magic realism. It is the trademark for sure, nonetheless more was expected.

The roller-coaster of a ride as the book zigzags from places, religion, fantasy, literature is something which has always been a part of his books – more so in this one and “The Moor’s Last Sigh”. In fact, at some point I thought that there was somewhere down the line a lot of recycling but with a lot of exuberance and verve. What isn’t there is the debate on religion which was a part of his earlier books mainly “Grimus” and “Shame”. What was also interesting was that at some point the innocence combined with a lot of angst that was a part of “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” could also be found as I turned the pages.

I also think that the book is heavily influenced by Marquez’s writings. The combination of magical and the realistic are interwoven beautifully in Rushdie’s latest work. At the same time, it does take some time to get into the book, however once the reader does, it is not easy to get out of the land created by Rushdie.

The book is a more matured version of Rushdie’s writings. There is a lot of profundity, with a balanced mix of magic-realism (the death of this word shall not come to be), mythology, history and of course not to forget love – at the core of the tale.

The usual elements are always there, lurking in the background, even Bombay snakes itself in in the first fifty pages with so much ease. There is also the magic realism, which is present throughout, but of course since the book is about a Jinni named Duniya and her love for a human being and how the connection of her children over time comes to be in the near future. There is an element of apocalypse with a storm striking New York skies and something called the “strangeness” which occurs in its aftermath, linking all of Duniya’s children across the world.

To me the story of “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights” is simply breath-taking. I could not for tear myself away from the book. Where does the title come into play? The title is about the time spent by Dunia’s children fighting a war with each other as the days and nights unfold. The tales are nested, just like all his other books. There is no overtly political tone in the book, like was the case in his other works of fiction, which is very refreshing.

The story is satirical (making its jabs felt on almost every page), it is also a metaphysical fable, it is also wicked and wise at the same time. In short, it is perhaps nothing like what Rushdie has written before. The reference range in the book is also wide – given he talks of Aristotle, Mickey Mouse and Henry James as well (besides many others), so much so that your head will spin faster and faster, right when you reach mid-way.

Rushdie’s New York is another aspect about the book. He encapsulates the city like no one else ever has (I don’t only think that but also believe in it). The humour is absurdist in nature, reminding me of Gary Shteyngart.

The Arab mythology angle is dealt with in a racier manner and I could almost find myself not being able to wait for those parts to come through. There is always this sense of dread mingled with excitement while reading a Rushdie novel. This book proves to be more and beyond that. I also think that maybe the gestation helped him to create something like this.

All in all, I would say that “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights” is the kind of book that comes along once in a while blending past, present, future, the mysticism and the real so innovatively that all you want to do then is reread it.
Here’s Salman Rushdie talking about his book: