Some readers may be surprised that Marlon James has followed up his epic, critically acclaimed, 2015 Man Booker-winning “A Brief History of Seven Killings” with a fantasy novel. “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” was influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien and African legends and myth, but in fact, the richly rewarding novel, first of the Dark Star trilogy, feels like a natural extension of James’ style and his interest in examining oppression, power structures and the individual’s place in an often cruel and unfeeling world. “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” is bawdy (OK, filthy), lyrical, poignant, violent (sometimes hyperviolent), riotous, funny (filthily hilarious), complex, mysterious, and always under tight and exquisite control.
The setting is a mythic, never-existed Africa that James, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly in 2017, placed after the fall of the Roman Empire. He has also cited extensive research into African epics like Son-Jara, the fable of the founding of Malian Empire, among others. The kingdoms in “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” some urban and others rural, are depicted in the most complex way I’ve read in any fantasy or historical novel, even as the novel also moves effortlessly across all 600-plus pages.
James certainly makes his own unique contribution to the process of decentralizing the white European experience in fantasy fiction, although it’s important to recognize that this process has been underway for some time — and in so many different ways that it’s just plain lazy to compare this novel with, say, works from the last decade by Nnedi Okorafor or David Anthony Durham or Nora Jemisin or Minister Faust or Nisi Shawl or Kai Ashante Wilson (perhaps even beyond lazy). Neither is “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” Afrofuturism or even, really, “the African Game of Thrones,” as many – including James – have called it.
What it is … is the latest Marlon James novel.
It’s a cruel world, much as ours is.
“Black Leopard, Red Wolf” is narrated by “the Tracker,” who explains that he once “had a name, but [I] have long forgotten it. I have no guise. I have no look.” He has “one eye that is mine and one that is not.” The “one that is not” was sucked out of his head by a hyena woman after being betrayed by his lover, and filled again, much later, by a mad white scientist.
The Tracker’s best friend, in a tumultuous, often-changing relationship, is the Black Leopard, a shape-shifter who shares attributes of the human and a big dangerous cat. His father “fought a crocodile, and a snake and a hyena only to kill himself with man envy.” Together, these misfits reside at the heart of James’ story and two more complex, maddening, amoral, sympathetic characters have rarely been found in literature, with the Leopard first a mentor to the Tracker and then at times a burden and a curse (and, likely, vice versa).
Throughout, James makes the unreal real, without resorting to the kind of sludgy exposition that sometimes is referred to with a deepening sigh as “world-building.” James’ settings feel lived-in and complex, down to the stink-eye the urban folk of Kongor give to the naked riverfolk: “To wear only skin is to wear the mind of a child, the mind of the mad, or even the mind of men with no role in society.” It’s a cruel world, much as ours is. “They took the woman away to drown her and the man to cut all manhood off” is a not uncommon example of depictions of casual cruelty. But first-rate banter between the Tracker and the Black Leopard help avoid things getting so unrelentingly dark or monotone while also contributing to a setting that feels alive and vibrant.
Have I mentioned there’s a lot of gay sex? There’s a lot of gay sex.
In the opening section, “A Dog, a Cat, a Wolf, and a Fox, ” we learn how the Tracker met the Black Leopard and left his family behind. But that’s not all we get. As just one of the story’s many complex layers, the Tracker is also telling his tale to an inquisitor whose nature only slowly becomes clear. And the Tracker isn’t just recounting the past and his early years. He is experiencing events again in his heart that he has yet to share, and so the novel begins cryptically with the lines “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.” The journey in these first few pages travels through physical and emotional terrain: readers bear witness to the anguished aftermath of a climax they won’t know until much later. It’s a masterful opening, as full of ghosts as the beginning of “Seven Killings,” and teaches us how to read the novel as a whole, in which the past, present and future often converge. It’s perhaps beside the point to try to identify the storytelling style, which could be influenced by the griots of West African culture, but just as easily be Nabokovian in origin; the influences feel fully integrated and subsumed in James’ voice.
Several years after parting ways with the Black Leopard, the Tracker is approached by his old companion, all “whiskers and wild hair that made him look more lion than panther.” The Black Leopard has a proposal: To join a lucrative quest to find a missing child sought by the slaver Amadu Kasawura. Except, everyone surrounding the boy was murdered. Except, everywhere the boy is sighted, people die. Except, the slaver won’t say why he wants to find the boy and others may be on the trail, for their own mysterious reasons.
They are joined by a motley crew of ne’er-do-wells with some fascinating physical attributes. These deftly drawn companions include Sogolon, a woman who can shape-shift into goo cascading down a wall and a giant named Sadogo — who will probably kill you if you call him a giant — whose unexpected extended monologue about his life after being virtually silent is one of the highlights of the novel, as is his other monologue recounting all “one hundred, seventy and one” of his killings. Later on, an uncanny water buffalo joins the group, one who has a distinct opinion about the Tracker’s fashion sense and who, in one of the funniest scenes, kicks into the next street a very surprised man who means the Tracker harm. To say they’re all hiding secrets, water buffalo included, and have stories to tell would be a severe understatement.
Soon enough, the quest takes the Tracker, the Black Leopard and their companions into the Darklands as a shortcut to the city of Kongor, which they believe holds clues to the child’s disappearance. But the Darklands cause shimmering hallucinations and time dilation, and when they reach Kongor after a few days, they find to their horror that a month has actually passed. The Tracker must also make his way through a thicket of contradictory stories about the missing boy and a frisson of dread as the “mad King of the South” begins to come into focus as the possible real financier of their search. This King, in James’ hands, becomes a powerful, well-rendered figure that is much in your thoughts as a reader even when not physically present or referred to on the page.
James makes the unreal real.
As all this plays out, deepening an already rich narrative, I found that among all the other surprises, the most unexpected thing about the novel is how the avowed Tolkien influence is so intensely subverted by James’ voice, narrator and style. The novel isn’t so much heroic fantasy, with noble quests and sacrifices and a traditional story arc of Good versus Evil, but instead becomes an essential part of the canon for heroic fantasy’s no-good cousin: Swords and Sorcery. This is a bit like wondering if you’re going to get Agatha Christie and instead find you’re reading Ross MacDonald (a good or a bad thing, depending on your tastes).
The comparison between certain mystery genres and fantasy isn’t at all outré. Swords and sorcery has none of the naivety of traditional heroic fantasy (let us not speak of the “grimdark” subgenre for now) and usually, like hard-boiled detective fiction, features some down-and-out adventurer who takes on some task with little enthusiasm and maximum cynicism about the outcome and who may be little changed by the experience, which becomes murky to the point of not even being sure who employed you to steal that giant ruby of the gods or rescue that kidnapped prince.
The writer James most reminded me of with “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” if he reminds me of anyone, is actually Fritz Leiber, whose classic Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser swords-and-sorcery series spanned four decades of the writer’s life, and still feels fresh and vibrant today. These stories had fascinating characters, complex, gritty settings, messy morality, and, perhaps most importantly, a great sense of humor — unlike the somewhat glummer Conan created by Robert E. Howard. (Leiber actually coined the term “swords and sorcery” in 1961, to describe “the points of culture level and supernatural element.”) I was also reminded of the work of the unfairly neglected Charles Saunders, whose Imaro stories (collected in 1981) are among the first swords-and-sorcery stories by a nonwhite author and which, in part, use African legends and settings as their inspiration. (Samuel R. Delany has also worked in this space, but his Nevèrÿon stories have little in common with James’ approach here.)
James has created a novel and a world that is both fresh and beautifully realized.
“Black Leopard, Red Wolf” isn’t without some faults, minor though they may be. Like Tolkien, James sometimes cannot bring himself to cut a scene and resume at some later location, and especially early on the readers gets a few unnecessary paragraphs of walking, running, walking, running, walking, running, that become tedious and add nothing to the narrative. The Darklands also has a curiously perfunctory feel. What should be a classic scene falls a bit flat, as James invests little in conveying the preternatural feel of the forest, a phantasmagorical parade of elephants is both there and gone too quickly, not allowing readers to savor the frisson of the macabre — and the animals that follow, trampling the moment, are described at the same level of detail as if they appeared in a “Jumanji” novelization. It’s a lost opportunity salvaged by how deftly James chronicles the aftermath of lost days and blank spaces in the characters’ minds as they convalesce.
But these are quibbles at best. “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” is, for the most part, absolutely brilliant — and the last third of the novel attains a kind of page-turning intensity without sacrificing psychological complexity.
Why is the child so important? Will the Tracker’s companions survive this quest? What was the Mad King’s role in all of this? As with most things about “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” the answers are complicated and at times heartbreaking. As a weary and jaded reader of heroic fantasy and swords and sorcery — who during my teen years created terrible pastiches of Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin, Patricia McKillip and Leiber — I can honestly say that James has created a novel and a world that is both fresh and beautifully realized and written.
Whether this is innovation or renovation, I don’t know for sure. All I know is I loved it.
Riverhead; 640 pp., $30.00
Jeff VanderMeer’s most recent novel is “Borne,” an Arthur C. Clarke Award finalist and NEA Big Reads selection.