I’ve never cared for The Lord of the Rings. To me it tastes like Elder Edda Lite, and long since gone flat. If I’m going to read a contemporary reframing of the saga form, I want one with contemporary resonance. N. K. Jemisin’s “The Broken Earth” trilogy, for instance, travels unfamiliar landscapes but raises challenges we know all too well—a society suffering pernicious inequality on a planet whose environment’s been ravaged by its inhabitants. The fiction allows us to see our world anew.
Now Marlon James has launched his own “Dark Star” series, with Black Leopard, Red Wolf. He’s cited the Rings trilogy as an inspiration (as well as George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones), yet in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the phantasmagoria had me entranced. I’d be surprised if I’m not in for the long haul.
The novel’s a wild rumpus, with wild things of all kinds galumphing through multiple storylines, but at its center are the adventures of Leopard and Wolf. The latter, our narrator, is under interrogation about a lost boy, and his answers unfold as shaggy-dog tales, or rather shaggy-monster. He appears human, though one of his eyes is a wolf’s, but he’s usually called “Tracker” for his “nose:” a magic sense of smell. Leopard, who can actually take the form of the jungle cat, is his friend from childhood, though the two of them are sometimes at each other’s throats. Both join the hunt, with a small posse of necromancers and freaks.
This supernatural quest becomes, in time, part of a fantastical power struggle, in which the missing boy may be either a prince or a usurper. This may sound like Tolkien, but the spirit’s considerably more adult. The rapscallion banter never falls into cuteness, proving instead one of the book’s great pleasures; Tracker’s repartee is so barbed, it provokes a recurring response: “News of your nose I have heard, but nobody said anything about your mouth.” So too, no Hobbit ever enjoyed such high jinks: “He blew on my navel, then moved lower between my legs and did precious art. I begged him to stop in the most feeble whisper.”
Such humid humanity pervades Black Leopard, Red Wolf, even at its most surreal or brutal. Until this departure into fantasy, it was safe to call James a historical novelist, his three previous books unearthing the unhappy dead of his native Jamaica. However, his penchant for violence, often inflamed by illicit passion, made his work stand apart. In The Book of Night Women (2009), an eighteenth century slave survives rape and torture to repay her persecutors in kind. A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), set during the 1970s and ’80s in the ghettos of Kingston and Brooklyn, featured a hitman exploring his homosexuality. The novel also won well-nigh universal acclaim, taking home the Man Booker prize, and is now in development as an HBO series. It made a hard act to follow, but the switch to fantasy, as well as the change in setting—roughly the Niger Basin in medieval times—seems to enliven James’s imagination, without sacrificing his street-level grit.
A reader can, amid the tussling with ogres and witches, identify real-world equivalents for some of the action. A busy slave trade exists, but the traffic doesn’t move west, towards the ships of Spain or England. Rather, the buyers are “people who follow the eastern light” and “worship only one God.” A Sultan is mentioned, but never a Pope, and the absence seems central to James’s accomplishment. His orcs and elves are all people of color, and among them degrees of darkness matter (in a witty scene, a queen has her guards undress a warrior so she may inspect his mottling). Overall, Black Leopard, Red Wolf does without whites, excluding entirely the powers that eventually hacked this powerful region into a jigsaw puzzle of nations. Indeed, one of Tracker’s most horrifying nemeses, skillfully withheld till the final chapter, anticipates the European holocaust. An “albino” perversion of Spiderman, this creature’s lair is a place of extinction.
Despite the African focus, the writing’s energy and subtlety calls to mind the great European sojourners, like Conrad or Lessing, struck by the country’s blend of vitality and menace:
I thought there would be cool mist but wet heat swept in. . . . White flowers opened and closed. Trees stretched far into sky with foreign plants bursting out of the trunks. Some vines hung loose, others swung back up into the trees, where . . . the sky that could be seen already looked like night.
Likewise intriguing are the local city-states. Malakal is “dark,” where “the whores hustle and hustlers whore,” whereas in Kongor, “the Great Hall of Records” stands “as tall as any palace.” The narrator’s never less than acute about history and status. If a realm of dreams could have a de Tocqueville, it would be Marlon James.
Ultimately, it’s Tracker’s sensitivity, his depth of feeling, that raises Black Leopard, Red Wolf above simpler fantasy. The author shows endless sophistication, whether his players are making love or going for the kill. And James’ imaginative deftness with sub-Saharan culture sets his novel alongside other significant revisionism out of the African Diaspora, like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Still, what matters most is how a narrator so bizarre as Tracker reveals trauma any psychoanalyst would recognize: the scars of a displaced childhood and the resulting ache for a home. Better yet, he finds such connection only by violating the conventions of his society. The lone Wolf must render himself vulnerable, and open his heart to a light-skinned “follower of the eastern light.” This internal transformation matters more than any visible shape shifting; it leaves the narrative feeling complete despite the handful of mysteries that remain at its close. Though the horrors of this novel “would outrage the lowest god,” still it knows how to find “the place where love lived.”