When Marlon James announced his follow-up to his Booker-Prize winning novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, it was met with intense excitement. James is best known as a literary novelist with a reputation for not mincing his words in public. In promotion for his last book, James sparked debate with his comments about the domination of white women as gatekeepers in publishing and his critique on the distinction between white people who identify as nonracist as opposed to antiracist. In the business of literary fiction, writers who speak so directly and bluntly about how power in the industry works are rare and often marginalized. But the honor of the Booker Prize, one of the top prizes in the world, seemed to usher James into the world of publishing respectability.
So, when James announced his next project would be an epic fantasy, The Dark Star Trilogy, set in a mythological Africa, it was taken as proof that establishment recognition was not going to quiet his desire for disruption. It suggested a desire to break free of the literary fiction genre and explore the fantasy one—a distinction in literature that seems to mean everything for publishing and marketing professionals and very little for actual readers, who tend to read more promiscuously than market research suggests.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the first book in the series. James received a lot of press for describing the books as an “African Game of Thrones,” but that description is misleading. This first book, at least, is less concerned with the machinations and nature of power and more interested in questions of truth, the reliability of memory, and the complicated relationship between fathers and sons.
This first book follows Tracker, a mercenary known for having “a nose.” Tracker can smell everything—his surroundings, other people, and emotions like desire, love, hate, and fear. He lives his life as an itinerant bounty hunter, moving through different cities and villages. “I have always been an edge man, always on the coast, always by the boundary. That way nobody knows if I have just come or was turning to leave,” he tells us. The plot of this novel is relatively simple—Tracker has been hired to find a boy. Who the boy is and why those searching for him want him returned is the mystery of the novel, a question that James returns to again and again. Tracker is assisted by Leopard, a jungle cat who can shape-shift into the body of a man and who initiates a young Tracker into this iterant life. Leopard is Tracker’s guide through the world of witches, women filled with lightning, and girls made of smoke that Tracker encounters on his travels. Threaded underneath all of this is the unreliability of Tracker’s account. This book is part of a trilogy, after all, and the next two books will tell the story of the same quest from different perspectives, with the insistence that everything Tracker tells us here is a lie and the knowledge that the boy in question is dead.
It seems that everyone we meet in this tale is an outsider of some sort—extraordinary either in their magical abilities, cunning, strength, or degradation. Fantasy novels are full of those who are exceptional. But James manages to combine literary fiction’s obsession with the outsider and fantasy’s narratives of exception into something new.
All of this means that James has created a black and queer fantasia. As cohost Joseph Osmundson noted on a recent episode of the literary and queer studies podcast Food 4 Thot, “It’s sad when fantasy writers don’t embrace [queerness] explicitly. “What is queerer than the experience [of shape-shifting]—of being able to modify ourselves and our bodies?” added guest John Paul Brammer. James has made this metaphor of experience explicit in the fantastical bodies and feats of wonder he describes, while building a rich interiority for Tracker. The fantastical elements in this book work both as impressive set pieces and as descriptions of the fractured identities of these characters.
We learn early on that Tracker is untethered. After years of abuse, he strikes back at his father and flees his house. Returning to what he believes to be his father’s ancestral tribe, he quickly learns that his family history is not what it seems, and those he believes to be his parents were lying to him about his origins. Tracker yearns to be initiated into the manhood rites of his father’s people, but ultimately is not. He possesses an “inner girl” just as women have an “inner boy,” and so his desires cross genders. An uncle who is also uninitiated into the rites of manhood but is initiated into this other queerer world of desire introduces Tracker to Leopard. When Tracker first meets him, Leopard is engaged in a relationship with this uncle, the one other man Tracker has met who also loves men. Leopard is just out of Tracker’s reach—an object of desire, a possibility, a recognition, a mirror. He continues to shift these shapes as the novel progresses.
What is most interesting in Black Leopard, Red Wolf is that both of these characters may want things, but every desire is triangulated. Tracker’s attraction to Leopard and Leopard’s attraction to Tracker is always run through a third character—a girl Tracker tries to save, another boy hunter the Leopard takes as a lover. Triangulated desire is a hallmark of queer narrative—an offshoot of both censorship of queer experiences in fiction and an attempt to describe the dynamics of romance for an identity that must stay hidden and often cannot express desire directly.
One of the things that draws Tracker and Leopard together is that they are both deeply entrenched, in the most delicious and surprising ways, in daddy issues. How this plays out—in Tracker’s belligerence and flamboyant disregard for propriety and in Leopard’s cool indifference to social convention, and in both characters’ unexpected tenderness—is the undergirding of the novel and what compels the action more than the cover plot of a mercenary searching for a boy.
In conversation with this theme of lost fathers is that of lost boys. A slave trader contracts Tracker and Leopard to search for a boy. Who the boy is and why he is so valued is obscured for many chapters. Instead, the motif of a lost child or a child in danger appears over and over again. For the first few chapters of the book, a pattern is established. Tracker and Leopard come to a town or meet someone wishing to engage their services and are often treated to a story of a lost child. Is it the same child they are seeking? Sometimes it is, sometimes it is not. But children are lost, killed, kidnapped, taken, repeatedly, sometimes with no consequence, sometimes with great mourning.
How you feel about Black Leopard, Red Wolf depends on how comfortable you are with the oral tradition. If you relish a narrative that does not follow a straight line, but instead loops around itself, reiterates, repeats, and mirrors scenes, following less an arc and more the circular rhythms of conversation, then the book will crack itself open to you with its bombast and insistence on rhetorical flair. James has managed to build a literary novel around the structures of oral storytelling.
As I read, I was reminded of Sarah Ruhl’s observations about narrative form. Ruhl says that in addition to a linear narrative form, there is the Aristotelian form that dominates so much of literature, where “one thing happens, so the next thing happens…so the climax happens,” all following a neat arc. Ruhl notes, slyly, that we tend to take this form for granted perhaps because it mimics the form of the male orgasm. But there is also the Ovidian narrative form. Here, “emphasis, in terms of story, is on transformation rather than a scene of conflict or rational cause and effect.” In Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Leopard shape-shifts, becoming a man, exists comfortably in both bodies (leopard and man), and takes as lovers men who wish to sleep with a man and a cat. Ruhl notes that “in the arc [form], change is usually of the moral variety—a lesson learned. But in Ovidian form, the [story] takes pleasure in change itself, as opposed to pleasure in moral improvement.” Ruhl notes that this story style is often discounted, in part because “it is very hard to teach the art of transformation…it is difficult to teach the art of flying.” And in fact, there is no outstanding moral in James’s world created here—only the pleasure of transformation.
For fans of white fantasy authors, The Dark Star Trilogy may seem new. But for those readers familiar with black speculative fiction, it is clear that James is in conversation with the writers who came before him. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is as queer as anything Samuel R. Delany has written, and mines similar territory as Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death. James is loosely working in the tradition of those works we’ve begun to call Afrofuturism, a wide-reaching aesthetic that encompasses the film and comic universe of Black Panther, Janelle Monáe’s album suites of imagined android uprisings, the music of Sun Ra and Parliament-Funkadelic and Alice Coltrane, and the young-adult novels of writers like Daniel José Older and P. Djèlí Clark.
Where James differs from those authors is that this work is set in an imagined past, not a dreamed or dreaded future. This is a radical place to be. “Who controls the past controls the future,” Orwell wrote. With this in mind, it makes sense that James has used the cultural power that came with his success from A Brief History of Seven Killings to write this different past, an Africa that has not been colonized. “The setting is a made-up place,” James has said. “[It’s] sort of recapturing some of the glories of [African] empires—a lot of which the British…burnt to the ground, which is why we don’t talk about them now. Going way back, the touch point for this story would probably be just after the dawn of the Iron Age.”
This choice is in contrast to many fantasy writers’ and fans’ resistance to imagining black people in their version of the past. One of the great black speculative writers, N. K. Jemisin, puts it best in her 2013 essay “How Long ’Til Black Future Month?”:
Nothing in [these fantasies] jibes with my understanding of actual medieval Europe. There’s no fantasy version of the Silk Road bringing spices and agricultural techniques and ideas from China and India and Persia. There’s been no Moorish conquest. There aren’t even Jewish merchants or bankers, stereotypical as that would be. Everyone in this “Europe” looks the same but for minor variations of hair or eye color. They speak the same language, worship the same gods—and everyone, even the very poor people, seems inordinately concerned with the affairs of the nobility, as if there’s nothing else going on that matters. There are dragons and magic in the story, but it’s the human fantasy that I’m having trouble swallowing….This isn’t magical medieval Europe; it’s some white supremacist, neo-feudalist fantasy of same.
Ironically, readers and critics sometimes demand the same results from black realist fiction and traditional white fantasy novels—moralization, the desire for protagonists who make clear, narrative decisions in pursuit of what is good and right, with swift punishment for anyone who imagines a life outside the norm. A novel usually dies once it enters into the noble trap of “inspiration.” But James has created a new past that is alive precisely because every single character is that modern-day sin, problematic. Tracker’s favorite exclamation is “Fuck the gods!” Often, Tracker ignores vulnerable people in trouble and takes money from slave traders. Leopard remains alluring in his ability to change from cat to man, sometimes to intimidate, sometimes in the middle of sex. This is not a Pan-African utopia but rather a fully realized civilization with slavers, whores, kings, queens, pragmatic bounty hunters, amoral witches, blasphemous priests, and wily children. I say this with great pleasure—the pages practically reek with the full funk of humanity.
On top of all of these existential questions, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is an adventure novel. Every few pages, a brawl breaks out and Tracker, Leopard, or their compatriots get a chance to prove their physical mettle. Here is where James really gets to play—characters have lightning in their bodies, eat the flesh of corpses, crawl across the ceiling, and seep through floors. It becomes its own version of a lullaby, all the ways bodies shift, change, fall over themselves in battle, and then reform. Because James is pulling from multiple African traditions to create his universe, the body becomes a touchstone, an anchor and reference point when the rules, customs, and allegiances jumble around the reader. Here, James remembers a core tenet of fantasy writing—that we enter a world that is decidedly not our own, that we have the magic of seeing something we have never seen before.
In his irreverence, James accomplishes that thing that Jemisin calls for in the future of speculative fiction—“fantasies of exploration and enchantment that didn’t slap me in the face with you don’t belong here messages” and to “be able to relax and dream.”