Books

The “African Game of Thrones Just Keeps Getting Better

Marlon James’ acclaimed series is great because it’s fantasy—not in spite of it.

Marlon James resting his head on his left hand.
Marlon James. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Mark Seliger.

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When Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first book in Marlon James’ Dark Star trilogy, was published in 2019, James described it as “an African Game of Thrones,” only to backpedal in a later interview and call that tagline a “joke.” It’s not clear what James doesn’t like about the comparison, because reading the newly published second volume in the trilogy, Moon Witch, Spider King, makes it seem even more apt. James’ trilogy is indeed a lot like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series of novels. It’s set in a vast imaginary region full of often fantastical city-states. There are monsters, witches, sorcerers, and even dragons, plus a teeming cast of characters whose quests and ambitions set them on the road to adventure. There’s also plenty of action, skullduggery, ruthlessness, violence, and sex (some of which is violent).

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In fact, the best way to experience James’ trilogy is as an African Game of Thrones. One of the pleasures of genre fiction is the way authors openly converse with the books of their predecessors, expanding the reader’s understanding of whole field and what it can do. To read one book is to engage with many. Martin famously did this by killing off a character who seemed to be the series’ hero, and by depicting a fantasy version of the European Middle Ages much less pastoral and idealized than that of J.R.R. Tolkien and his imitators. That’s how a subgenre of epic fantasy known as “grimdark” was born. Some fans were put off by the harshness of the world Martin created, but others were thrilled by the way he broke some of the genre’s conventions while still delivering on many of its satisfactions. Why shouldn’t fantasy also be realistic?

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James’ Dark Star trilogy lands solidly in the grimdark camp, but the publication of Moon Witch, Spider King makes his contribution to the genre even more evident. As with Black Leopard, Red Wolf, and as befits a winner of the Booker Prize (for 2014’s A Brief History of Seven Killings), this novel’s prose style, inspired by the grammar of African languages, has an intoxicating swagger and energy. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is narrated by Tracker, a man with a preternatural nose who can follow the scent of a human target for miles. He’s also what the people of James’ invented world call a “man lover,” as well as a woman hater. A cocky mercenary with a complicated love life, Tracker gets hired as part of team in search of a kidnapped boy whose real identity is one of the puzzles of Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Another member of this largely self-serving fellowship, a woman named Sogolon, represents everything Tracker mistrusts. She’s a witch, the kind of woman who, as Tracker sees it, exterminates “mingi” children like the boy he once was. The mingi are much like the mutants in the X-Men comics, a favorite of James’. They are weird outcasts but have special powers, and while Tracker isn’t sentimental about much, in the most idyllic period of his life, he and a lover from a far-off land take in a handful of these kids, forming a family of sorts.

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Black Leopard, Red Wolf is Tracker’s narrative, a deposition he delivers to an unidentified inquisitor. It ends with Tracker, apparently a prisoner, telling his interrogator that he knows Sogolon has supplied her own testimony as well. “Does she say, Do not trust one word coming from Tracker’s mouth?” he asks. Moon Witch, Spider King answers that question, and many others, while raising more questions still.

[Read: Marlon James’ Fantasy Trilogy Is a Delirious Smoothie of Influences and Tributes]

As Sogolon sees it, she’s not a witch. She has a power, a fearsome sort of wind or force that comes to her aid, though not reliably so. But her real expertise lies in martial arts and, eventually, killing, skills that are the product of a lifelong fascination with stick fighting. Sogolon is powered by rage, of which she has a seeming bottomless supply as a result of her horrific childhood with three brothers who blame her for the deaths of their parents, and with a series of callous employers, beginning with the operator of a brothel who turns her out at age 11. Eventually she becomes the servant of a princess in the northern capital, Fasisi, where she gets tangled up in palace intrigue.

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The first quarter of the novel is narrated in the third person. Only after that does Sogolon take over telling her story herself, and even then, it’s a patchwork thing. If Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the story of a man who can’t figure out how to form real connections with other people (“Nobody love no one” is Tracker’s motto), Moon Witch, Spider King is the story of a woman struggling to hold onto herself. The great antagonist of both novels is a figure known as the Aesi, a sorcerer who acts as chancellor to the northern king and is the real power behind the throne. He in turn is served by the Sangomin, described by one member of the Fasisi court as “the strangest children you ever going see. One of them skin red, one crawl sideways on the wall, and another have two head.” They are mingi children apprenticed to a necromancer, and necromancers are the sworn enemies of all witches.

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The Fasisi that Sogolon stumbles into is a perilous place, riven by witch hunts that, like all witch hunts, are directed by whim, malice, and opportunism. Sogolon soon notices something else: The people of Fasisi have a tendency to forget things. She arrives in the city in the service of a noblewoman exiled for giving offense to the king’s sister, but after a day or two in the capital, her mistress, like everyone else in the city, doesn’t even remember that the king had a sister. Sogolon is one of the few people immune to this selective amnesia, which bears a creepy resemblance to the old Soviet Union under Stalin, in which officials who fell out of favor with the dictator were “disappeared” and then erased from past photographs of the Soviet leadership.

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The Aesi is responsible for this, and eventually for the ruination of Sogolon’s fragile purchase on happiness. Sogolon’s reasons for hating the Aesi have a pro forma quality, resembling as they do the motivations of so many vendetta pursuers in popular culture. But James carefully establishes that Sogolon’s view of herself may be distorted. Even when supposedly at her most contented, she’s drawn to brutal exhibition fights, disguising herself as a boy and heading out into the night looking for a stick and men to beat with it. At her core, Sogolon—a woman whose contempt for men surpasses Tracker’s mistrust of women—contains a fury that never quite burns out. When she loses everything, she goes off to live in a forest with only monkeys for company, where she becomes known as the Moon Witch, accepting commissions from women seeking recourse against abusive men.

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Sogolon’s account of the search for the kidnapped boy only takes up a small portion of Moon Witch, Spider King. Contrary to Tracker’s suspicions, she doesn’t seem to rate him highly enough to denounce him as a liar. As far as she’s concerned, he’s a feckless manchild. Parts of her own memory have been erased, so that she has only a written account of her early years, dictated to a scribe while she still remembered them. (That’s the first quarter of the novel.) She’s possessed by her desire for revenge, a fierce clinging to the shredded recollections she retains and a way of enshrining them. Vengeance can be a rote theme in pop narratives, but James teases out its emotional subtext, its connection to the memories that make up the self. Revenge can make a person who has lost everything feel like she still exists.

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And Sogolon’s telling of events does differ from Tracker’s in many ways. “The series is three different versions of the same story,” James told the New Yorker, “and I’m not going to tell people which they should believe.” Sogolon and Tracker differ on both points of fact (such as who’s responsible for an action that leaves her badly burned) and on perspective. As Tracker sees it, the Sangomin are mingi children whose apprenticeship to the necromancers protects them from a world hostile to misfits. In Sogolon’s eyes, they are the monstrous instruments of a misogynistic regime and responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent women.

The differences also extend to James’ storytelling in the two novels. For the nomadic Tracker, traveling from point A to point B on a job is routine. Vectors are his line of work. But more than once in Moon Witch, Spider King, Sogolon sets out for a destination only to wind up back where she started. This novel, which is about what it means to be a woman in James’ invented world, captures in the form of its plot the experience of having one’s life dominated by other people’s agendas and becoming trapped in the incessant cycles of domesticity.

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The contrast between these two versions (so far) of the story of the search at the center of this trilogy is rare in epic fantasy. It’s not just that Tracker (a liar) and Sogolon (a forgetter) are unreliable narrators. Although this isn’t a common device in fantasy, novelists like Gene Wolfe have deployed it. But where Martin invigorated the epic fantasy genre by liberating it from the customary, quasi-Christian good vs. evil storyline, the Dark Star trilogy leaves what has actually happened in doubt, making it a function of who does the telling. This is a tricky strategy when writing fiction set in a world so fundamentally unlike the one we know. Black Leopard, Red Wolf and Moon Witch, Spider King can be disorienting and confusing books whose narratives jump around in time and treat such bizarre phenomenon as lightning vampires as if they need little explanation. Their difficulty will (and has) put off some readers, but for those who persevere, the two novels show how who you are shapes the kind of story you tell about the world around you, a world made new with every teller.