Marlon James’ influences are pretty standard for a Booker Prize–winning author and one of the most lauded writers of his generation: George R.R. Martin, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
Or at least those are the texts that keep coming up while discussing Black Leopard, Red Wolf,his new fantasy epic and the first volume in his Dark Star Trilogy.
James has been talking about writing “an African Game of Thrones” since shortly after winning the Booker for A Brief History of Seven Killings in 2015. The novel is finally here, and it’s one of the most anticipated books of the year. Not many Booker Prize winners have written novels that feature witches, sorcerers, dirt mermaids, hyenas that can transform into humans, relentless demons that emerge from ceilings, a man who prefers to spend most of his time as a leopard, more spells and incantations than you can count, kingdoms built into Ent-sized trees, an actual visit to the land of the dead, a brilliant buffalo, and a giant man who hates to be called a giant…to name just a few wonders.
Yet this novel doesn’t feel like a detour to James. Fantasy books and movies have played a huge and constant role in James’ life. “Those stories were always my first love. I’ll even watch bad fantasy movies,” James says.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t always clear that fantasy, or fantasy authors, loved James back. “I’ve always felt left out of those stories. It’s weird reading stories, and enjoying them, but not recognizing myself,” James says. “People like me, at least…we’re outside of them. That’s one reason I wanted to write this story.”
The book begins with a character known only as Tracker being interrogated by a nameless inquisitor. Tracker is a loner, a mercenary who uses his extraordinary sense of smell to find missing people, and he’s one of the most compelling antiheroes you’ll encounter in literature. The novel is Tracker’s version of the events that led to a mysterious child’s death. Who the child is, who’s hunting him, and why form the backbone of the novel. Tracker and his companions, competitors, lovers, and enemies—none of them are quite friends—range over thousands of miles and empires that will send the reader’s head spinning.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is epic, grand, and overpowering. James takes ancient tropes and makes them wholly unique and completely new. “Fantasy is the stories that become myths and legends. We’ve been telling them for thousands of years. People going on a quest, defeating the monster, we have an inherent connection to them. For me, I always knew eventually I would return to the myths,” James says.
James knows that these types of stories are more than mere escape. “Myths do something else. They clue us in on how we got where we are. Myths tell us how we used to live and what we used to believe in.”
There are so many compelling characters, harrowing monsters, and so much personality in Black Leopard, Red Wolf that readers will find themselves, jaws agape, putting the book down and asking themselves, “How did James do this?”
James almost seems unsure himself. “I’m surprised I didn’t give up,” he acknowledges. “I think I may have come close. For me, every book I’ve written starts from a point of impossibility. ‘I don’t know how to tell this story. This can’t be told.’ This happened with every book I’ve written.”
Fans of James’ earlier novels will recognize many of his trademarks: a huge cast of characters, precise attention to detail, vivid (even shocking) violence, and an undeniable humanity. And don’t forget: There are two more volumes to come.
Richard Z. Santos is a writer and teacher living in Austin. His essays, fiction, and interviews are widely published.