Marlon James' legendary Africa is a match for Middle-Earth

by Sam Finnemore / 27 February, 2019
Stratospheric expectations: Marlon James. Photo/Jeffrey Skemp/Supplied

Stratospheric expectations: Marlon James. Photo/Jeffrey Skemp/Supplied

RelatedArticlesModule - Marlon James black leopard red wolf book review

The Booker winner has penned an African fantasy saga to rival Tolkien in the first part of a planned series.

Marlon James’ fourth novel has already been showered in Tolkien comparisons, but don’t expect a genteel tale of an unexpected journey. Black Leopard, Red Wolf opens as it means to go on – with defiance and challenge, as a captive showers his interviewer in threats and insults. The prisoner is Tracker, a supernaturally gifted mercenary known by no other name. The story he grudgingly unfolds is one of a strange and dangerous quest. It’s also a story he insists is over: “The boy is dead. What else is there to know?”

There’s plenty, but none of it is given up easily or comfortably, as you’d expect from the author of the kaleidoscopic and confronting Booker Prize winner A Brief History of Seven Killings. That novel took recent Jamaican history as a jumping-off point for an exploration of violence, desire and identity; this time around James is working those themes across a mythical canvas of his own design, combining oral tradition and history into an expansive, legendary Africa that matches Middle-earth or Westeros for scope and sheer creative energy.

What really sets Black Leopard, Red Wolf apart from these common points of comparison, apart from a blessed absence of dead-horse fantasy trappings, is a truly astonishing depth of character development. The richness and believability of motivations, beliefs and contradictions go far beyond the patronising expectations set for “literary fantasy”. We’re in the territory of fine literature full stop, and none of it is compromised even for a moment by plot machinations or by some high authority laying down an unambiguous just cause to be pursued. Every step forward is a real choice with a real cost.

And it really is a dangerous world – no matter where James’ unconventional fellowship find themselves, it is steeped in blood and more besides. Protagonist Tracker is constantly bristling against it, inventively brutal and gloriously sharp-tongued against all comers. The shape-shifting Leopard is not to be trifled with, either, but offers a sly, relaxed foil to Tracker’s volatility and gently (and not so gently) prods him towards deeper self-awareness.

The journey and the personalities involved don’t make any allowance for love – Tracker denies its existence outright – but nevertheless it quietly works its way in. Any peaceful moments are scarce and fleeting, but they’re earned.

James’ pantheon of gods big and small, demons, witches and anti-witches lend a fever-dream edge to the setting.

For those unfamiliar with the cultural underpinnings, it all feels radically fresh and new, with a hint of deeper meanings layered beneath. Readers with an understanding of African mythology will get a richer experience still, and even without direct access to that dimension of enjoyment, recognising its presence in the novel is exciting in itself.

As a work of epic fantasy from a Man Booker winner, and coming at what feels like a watershed moment globally for stories by, of and for people of colour, pre-release expectations for Black Leopard, Red Wolf have been stratospheric. They’ve been fully rewarded. I’d hazard a guess that James will find a way to turn sequel convention on its head as ably as he’s upended so many others, but any hints at the continuing story are well concealed. The only certainty, on the current evidence, is that it’ll be well worth the wait.

BLACK LEOPARD, RED WOLF, Marlon James (Michael Joseph, $38)

This article was first published in the February 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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