Books

Marlon James’ Superpower

The Booker prizewinner brings his remarkable voice to the first novel in a dark fantasy trilogy.

Marlon James against a backdrop reminiscent of his book cover.
Marlon James.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Mark Seliger.

Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings—a panoramic, multivocal portrait of his hometown, Kingston, Jamaica, around the time of an assassination attempt on Bob Marley—was a literary reputation-maker, winner of the 2015 Booker Prize, and one of the great city novels of the past five decades. Black Leopard, Red Wolf—James’ first major work since then—will strike many as a radical departure: It is the first in an epic fantasy trilogy set on a fictional continent loosely based on Iron Age Africa. The novel is a delirious smoothie of cultural influences and tributes, from Kurosawa films to superhero comics to the seminal work of the 1930s Nigerian writer D.O. Fagunwa, whose Forest of a Thousand Daemons was the first novel published in the Yoruba language. (I’m pretty sure I even caught a whiff of Robert Browning at one point.)

That said, Game of Thrones is the most apt comparison. Although at one point we encounter “two halflings, one leaving a thick trail of pipe smoke,” there are no cozy, Shire-like enclaves in the world of Black Leopard, Red Wolf. James’ mode is “grimdark,” the subset of speculative fiction George R.R. Martin’s epic exemplifies, a mode that eschews J.R.R. Tolkien’s idealized, chivalric vision of the Middle Ages for something much closer to the brutal, hierarchical truth. Black Leopard, Red Wolf relates the adventures of a team of mercenaries hired by a slaver to find a child who has been missing for three years—or, failing that, proof of the boy’s death. It takes place as rumors of war stir between a northern and southern kingdom, although as in Medieval Europe, these kingdoms can’t be called proper nations. Instead, this world consists of uneasy alliances among conglomerations of city-states ruled by warlords and held together by unpredictable—and in the case of the southern kingdom, intermittently insane—monarchs.

The novel’s narrator, who goes only by the nom de guerre of Tracker, calls the assembled hirelings who set out in search of the missing boy a “fellowship,” but he’s being ironic, as they split up almost right away. Besides, one of the members is a former lover Tracker swore to kill because the man sold him out to a band of vengeful hyena women. The hyenas were after Tracker, meanwhile, because he’d killed some of their own in retaliation for their attack on the little forest community where he once lived, during a brief period of happiness. If there is a ruling imperative in this world, it’s the bloody cycle of retribution, culminating in one of the book’s final scenes, where a sorcerer warns, “You would best think about what you want in these last days, Tracker. Love or revenge. You cannot have both.” Yet the two aren’t really separate: Every quest for vengeance in the novel is spurred by the pain of a love betrayed or destroyed.

James isn’t an inhabitant of the fantasy genre intent on blowing up its conventions, the way George R.R. Martin was in 1996, when he published Game of Thrones and shocked readers by killing off the novel’s apparent hero. If anything, James seems to view Black Leopard, Red Wolf as a chance to gleefully embrace a host of established pop tropes. That forest community is a woodland sanctuary for children with special abilities who have been abandoned to die by villagers unwilling to accept their differences. Beneath his tough-guy exterior, Tracker harbors a soft spot for such kids. Estranged from his own family, he also possesses a superhuman skill: Once he latches onto the scent of a particular person, he can find them anywhere, even detecting their movements from across great distances. Having enlisted in the cause of finding the lost child, Tracker, like any good fictional detective, remains committed to unearthing the truth no matter the cost to himself. Even the motley crew of recruits he joins recalls the premises of such films as The Magnificent Seven, The Seven Samurai, and Guardians of the Galaxy. James is also far from the first writer to expand the fantasy genre to accommodate motifs, themes, and characters inspired by African culture, as the many fans of Nnedi Okorafor, Nalo Hopkinson, N.K. Jemisin, David Anthony Durham, and Tomi Adeyemi can testify.

The special skill James himself brings to the table is a voice of almost overwhelming confidence, earthiness, and brio. Within the first page or so, Tracker, who is now a prisoner being questioned by an inquisitor about how the sought-after boy ended up dead, establishes the novel’s ruthless eloquence:

Regard yourself. A man with two hundred cows who delights in a patch of boy skin and the koo of a girl who should be no man’s woman. Because that is what you seek, is it not? A dark little thing that cannot be found in thirty sacks of gold or two hundred cows or two hundred wives. Something that you have lost—no, it was taken from you. That light, you see it and you want it—not light from the sun, or from the thunder god in the night sky, but light with no blemish, light in a boy who has no knowledge of women, a girl you bought for marriage, not because you need a wife, for you have two hundred cows, but a wife you can tear open, because you search for it in holes, black holes, wet holes, undergrown holes for the light that vampires look for, and you will have it, you will dress it up in ceremony, circumcision for the boy, consummation for the girl, and when they shed blood, and spit, and sperm and piss you leave it all on your skin, to go to the iroko tree and use any hole you find.

Voice has always been James’ superpower; A Brief History of Seven Killings is a high-wire act of ventriloquism. Tracker’s voice—wounded, furious, disillusioned, impassioned, implacable—carries the reader through Black Leopard, Red Wolf like a riptide. Truth be told, the plot itself, although liberally salted with spectacular chase and fight scenes, unfolds at a leisurely pace. Furthermore, James molds the novel’s diction to African grammatical structures not always easy to follow: “In everything, learning is to take from where you be to where you like to go.” Both of these qualities impede the speedy consumption of pages that readers expect from genre fiction, but ultimately they are what makes Black Leopard, Red Wolf so satisfying. The novel reshapes the way you read it as you go along. Like all epic fantasy, it builds a world out of words, and the way those words fit together is part of the distinctive architecture of that world.

And what a world it is! Tracker’s search takes him to a city of towers stacked atop a mountain, a forest where time stands still, another city of treehouses and elaborate machinery concealing an ugly secret, yet another city built out of tunnels, a magical library where he discovers an important clue. His companions include a shape-shifter who alternates between man and leopard, a “Moon Witch” beset by invisible enemies, a minor river goddess, a chatty giant, a girl raised to be the food of ogres, and an amiable and inexplicably intelligent water buffalo. Arrayed against them are such terrors as a vampire who replaces his victims’ blood with blue lightning, bat-winged ghouls, and supernatural assassins who form out of shadows pooling on ceilings—their intended victims never dare step under a roof again. The fellowship’s employer gives them a story about why the boy they seek is so important, but of course that story keeps changing as Tracker gathers more information, and not every member of the search party is who he or she seems to be. Far from a simple missing-person case, their quest turns out to be highly pertinent to the political tension simmering throughout both kingdoms.

The search, however, is more MacGuffin than the familiar, heroic campaign to save the world. If given the choice, Tracker isn’t particularly sure he’d want to save it. His work tracking down straying husbands and wandering wives has left him as cynical and hard-boiled as Philip Marlowe. “Nobody loves no one” is his motto when the quest begins, and much of the novel’s suspense comes from anticipating how that indifference will be dismantled. Will it be love for the children he once helped save that undoes him? Or for his old friend and traveling companion, Leopard? Isn’t that handsome police prefect who followed him into the library acting kind of flirty? The hard-boiled shell of the novel’s first half begins to soften. And in Tracker’s world, that can only mean the advent of pain and loss.

The following two novels in James’ Dark Star trilogy will be versions of the same events, told from the perspectives of different witnesses. (James has said that he got the idea during a conversation about the Rashomon-style narrative of the Showtime series The Affair.) So while Black Leopard, Red Wolf is restricted to Tracker’s voice, the trilogy as a whole will be, like A Brief History of Seven Killings, a juxtaposition of voices. Perhaps James’ new work is not such a departure after all. A city is, in its way, an act of imagination, an identity conjured out of a collection of buildings and of people whose only commonality is that they happen to be in the same place and have a story to tell about it. To read A Brief History of Seven Killings is to feel Kingston assembling itself in James’ mind through the voices and stories of his characters, in much the same way that he constructs the nameless land of Tracker’s birth, a place that is and also isn’t Africa. It may not be real, but listen long enough and you’ll believe in it, too.

Book cover of Black Leopard, Red Wolf.