What a wholly-immersive wild adventure this novel is! Going into it I knew Marlon James has a talent for writing intricate sweeping tales from having read his previous novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings”. That book greatly enhanced his international prominence having won the Booker Prize in 2015. That same year I was one of the judges of The Green Carnation Prize and we also selected his novel as a winner - not just for the magnificence of his storytelling but the meaningful inclusion of gay characters and gay sex in this Jamaican story about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley and drug trafficking.
“Black Leopard, Red Wolf” is very different from that previous book yet still retains James’ unique style, sensibility and alluring mischievousness. Touted as an ‘African Game of Thrones’, it describes a fantastical medieval adventure involving warring kingdoms, witches, giants, shape-shifters and a quest for a missing child. But it’s all firmly rooted in African mythology, language and history. There have been significant examples recently of storytelling whose narratives aren’t wholly based in an Anglo-Saxon past but draw instead upon traditions in African culture. From Tomi Adeyemi’s “Children of Blood and Bone” to Akwaeke Emezi’s “Freshwater” to the phenomenally successful film Black Panther, these tales insist upon the presence of African lore and pay respect to its cultural history whose influence has largely been absent from Western narratives. Marlon James does the same while creating a riveting journey that has all the marks of a fantasy novel but also explores sophisticated ideas about the meaning of storytelling and explicitly adult themes about ambition, relationships, sex and violence.
Recognizing this novel is a significant shift from his more realistic mode of writing, James remarked in an early interview about this novel that “I wanted to go back to being a fantasy geek!” Part of what I loved about reading this book is that it made me feel like a boy again and recall a time when I frequently got lost in magical adventure novels where the world was entirely unpredictable and quickly transformed in spellbinding ways. Books in this mode are such feats of the imagination that they require a character list and detailed maps to help the reader’s journey through this complicated new world. “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” includes such aides and this adds to the nostalgic pleasure of embarking on what you know will be a knotty and richly-detailed odyssey.
The story’s hero Tracker becomes estranged from his family and tribe finding a more meaningful connection with a band of rejected deformed children called The Mingi and the charismatic Leopard (who alternately takes the form of a beast or man.) After being endowed with an extremely powerful sense of smell and magical protection from an anti-witch, Tracker (alongside a band of mercenaries and powerful beings) are recruited by a slave trader for a special mission to find a boy who mysteriously disappeared. The significance of this boy and his circumstances remain uncertain even as more details about him are uncovered during a quest which takes many years. Throughout his journeys Tracker encounters enchanted forests, mighty men engaged in gladiatorial fights, a neglected library master, evil shadow beings who walk on ceilings, a possessed village, flesh-eating monsters, doors that act as portals to other parts of the continent, tribes of witches who trade in children’s body parts and fantastical kingdoms. It’s a head-spinning adventure and one which expertly balances mysterious encounters with high intrigue.
Embedded within this rich tale is a complicated same-sex romance centring around the close connection between Tracker and Leopard. Both are prone to jealousy when Tracker takes up with a chief officer and Leopard has an affair with his bowman. James has spoken before about how he emigrated from his native Jamaica partly because of the homophobic violence there. Leopard remarks at one point how “There are lands where men who love men get their cocks cut off, and are left to bleed to death.” It feels bold and significant that the author continuously includes highly-detailed gay love stories as prominent aspects of his narratives as a way of being true to his experience and insisting these stories have a visible place in broader storytelling. So not only does James orientate readers into largely untapped folklore traditions but he also highlights how same-sex relationships are an equally valid part of African history and mythology.
James also features the ways in which misogyny and rape are inevitable parts of warfare. Battles involve trading in bodies and forced servitude. He shows how sex isn’t always about sexuality but can be a tool in ploys for power and economic dominance. He notes how “the gods gave us nipples and holes and it’s not the cock or the koo, but the gold in your purse that matters.” As a hero, Tracker fights with the sensibility of a vigilante. But the novel fascinatingly probes his own shortcomings as a man questioning whether he has a latent hatred of women and if his violent acts are motivated more by revenge than achieving a sense of larger justice. This complexity of character and display of self-scrutiny makes him much more conflicted than your average fantasy story hero.
While witnessing Tracker’s complex development and following his epic tales, we’re aware that this entire novel is a testimony he’s delivering to an inquisitor in a trial about the fate of the lost boy. This is only the first novel in a proposed trilogy James is writing so this framework is part of a larger story being told and provokes larger metaphysical questions about the meaning of truth. Tracker is aware that we should “never take the story of any god or spirit or magical being to be all true. If the gods created everything, was truth not just another creation?” He doesn’t accept the authority of the divine or any leader who claims to have the backing of divine forces. In fact, Tracker is determinedly sacrilegious as one of his favourite quips is “Fuck the gods!” He’s cognizant that folklore is a decidedly mortal compulsion. If the process of relating history involves infusing it with a purpose and plan then there can’t be any one honest account of the past – including his own. He further asks “What is truth when it always expands and shrinks? Truth is just another story.”
Since this book is only the first story of a much larger tale, I’m already eager to see how further instalments will enhance a broader understanding of this new complex world filled with competing dynasties that James has created. One of the most fascinating characters in this novel is Sogolon who is also called the Moon Witch and has her own complicated motivations for finding the missing boy. James has already established that the next novel will be told from her perspective so it’ll be fascinating to see how her account will offer a radically different point of view on the events covered in the first book. The author has proven how adept he is at depicting very different but equally convincing voices with the multiplicity of first person accounts in “A Brief History of Seven Killings”. So, while the scale of this planned “Dark Star Trilogy” is truly epic, I have faith he’ll be able to deliver a well-rounded and fully-realised vision of enormous stature. In this first instalment it’s stated how “The world is strange and people keep making it stranger.” I feel like the more we see of this world the weirder it will get and the truer it will seem.