Look out, hobbits: Marlon James is working on an epic fantasy trilogy

Marlon James being photobombed by a bookstore cat in Harlem.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Marlon James, who won the Man Booker Prize for his novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings” and is one of The Times’ critics at large, is working on an epic fantasy trilogy in the mode of J.R.R. Tolkien.

James was inspired to write the trilogy years ago, after learning that the cast of the “Lord of the Rings” movies would be predominantly white.

“It made me realize that there was this huge universe of African history and mythology and crazy stories, these fantastic beasts and soon, that was just waiting there,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “And I’m a big sci-fi geek — I love my ‘Lord of the Rings,’ I love my Angela Carter and my ‘Dragonslayer.’”

Riverhead Books will publish “The Dark Star Trilogy,” composed of the books “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” “Moon Witch, Night Devil” and “The Boy and the Dark Star.” James said he’s hoping to finish the first installment soon so it can be published in the fall of 2018.

He revealed the storyline of the first novel, saying, “The very, very basic plot is this slave trader hires a bunch of mercenaries to track down a kid who may have been kidnapped. But finding him takes nine years, and at the end of it, the kid is dead. And the whole novel is trying to figure out, ‘How did this happen?’”


James, who was born and raised in Jamaica, now lives in Minnesota where he teaches at Macalester College. He made his literary debut in 2005 with"John Crow’s Devil.” He followed that up four years later with “The Book of Night Women,” which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

His 2014 novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” about the 1976 shooting of Bob Marley in Jamaica, made him a literary superstar, and the first Jamaican author to win the Man Booker Prize.

James’ fantasy trilogy will draw on African mythology, although the setting will be “more Middle-earth than, say, Mogadishu,” he said.

“It’s all these imagined spaces, and all these imagined worlds, but still playing on a lot of African culture,” he said. “But also, sort of recapturing some of the glories of empires — a lot of which the British just kind of burnt to the ground, which is why we don’t talk about them now.”

“I wanted to go back to being a fantasy geek!” he said. “I want monsters and magical beings! Just in the first 50 pages of this book, this guy’s already gone underwater to the Underworld. He’s running into these mer-creatures who cause huge sickness.”

James said he’s hoping to expand his audience to include some younger readers with the new books. “I’m like, ‘Man, I hope 12-year-olds read this book,’” he said.

After the success of “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” James could have followed some of its characters into other parts of their lives, and readers would have followed. But he resisted that commercial impulse, explaining, “I’ve always believed in writing the book that’s in my head, as opposed to the book I think I should write.”