Marlon James’ influences aren’t exactly standard for a Man Booker Prize–winning author who is one of the most lauded writers of his generation: George R.R. Martin, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

At least those are the texts that keep coming up while discussing Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Riverhead, Jan. 5), the fantasy epic that is the first volume in his Dark Star Trilogy. It’s a contender for the National Book Award in fiction on Nov. 20.

James has been talking about writing “an African Game of Thrones” since shortly after winning the Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings in 2015. But not many Man Booker winners have written novels that feature witches, sorcerers, dirt mermaids, relentless demons, and more spells and incantations than you can count.

Yet the novel doesn’t feel like a detour to James. Fantasy books and movies have played a large and constant role in his 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 him back. “I’ve always felt left out of those stories,” says James, who was born in Jamaica and now divides his time between Minnesota and New York. “It’s weird reading stories, and enjoying them, but not recognizing myself. People like me, at least…we’re outside of them. That’s one reason I wanted to write this story.”

Black Leopard, Red Wolf takes ancient tropes and makes them wholly unique and 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,” James says.

Black Leopard Red Wolf There are so many compelling characters and harrowing monsters—so much personality—in Black Leopard, Red Wolf that readers will find themselves, jaws agape, putting the book down and asking, “How did James do this?”

James almost seems unsure himself. “I’m surprised I didn’t give up,” he acknowledges.

Richard Z. Santos is a writer and teacher living in Austin.