I grew up reading fantasy fiction. Though I should confess that I’ve never read Lord of the Rings, I’ve watched the films but not read the books. From the little I have read, Tolkien’s works read like dull travel guides-come-histories of Middle Earth. Since then fantasy writing has, in some ways, come a long way.
Unfortunately, in many ways it hasn’t. The genre has become a sort of commercialised fan-fiction, set in variations of Middle Earth, rehashing stories of elves and orcs. There seems to be an unspoken rule that fantasy authors must fulfil an A-Z list of tropes: here a brawl in a bar, there a dark lord summoning evil. Tolkien’s world drew from the myths, legends and history of the Western world and since then we’ve been riffing on the same material, George R.R. Martin included (note the name).
In 2015 Marlon James made literary history, becoming the first Jamaican author to win the Man Booker Prize. After the big win, everyone wanted to know what he’d be writing next. Here came the first whispers of a fantasy epic based on the myths and legends of an ancient Africa, now the fully-fledged Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first novel in James’ Dark Star Trilogy.
Marlon James is very good at shedding light on histories that have often been overlooked, particularly Jamaican history. The Book of Night Women was about a young woman, Lilith, born into slavery in Jamaica and A Brief History of Seven Killings was about the communities of Kingston during the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, both significant socially-charged times in real-life history. So when James, so hard-pressed by real world issues, said he’d be writing fantasy, I couldn’t help but wonder, what can he possibly have to say?
This is the first way in which Marlon’s book excels. Fantasy should be both familiar and alien, and a fantasy world using African mythology as a foundation has so much potential for discovery. Enter Tracker, the central character of Black Leopard, Red Wolf.
He is known for his heightened sense of smell. It’s more than that though, Tracker understands the world through his sense of smell, and in turn, it’s through smell that readers understand the novel’s world. This is an almost hallucinatory perspective. When we meet his friend Leopard for the first time, ‘on him [Tracker] smelled the leaves he ran through and the fresh wet of the dew […] and the fresh musk of the grave dirt under his fingernails.’
Following the insight gained by Tracker’s sense of smell, we begin to intimately understand this world. We start to get a better understanding of Africa, just as you might read descriptions of Hobbiton and feel closer to knowing England.
In the Western world, most of what we know about Africa is shaded by colonial history. Search for who discovered Mount Kilimanjaro and you’ll get Johann Ludwig Krapf.
That’s a nonsense — it suggests that generations of Tanzanians had looked to the horizon and somehow missed it. There are relatively few representations of Africa in pop culture, I’ve seen The Lion King, Black Panther, Madagascar and a few BBC wildlife programmes. There are even fewer works about Ancient Africa. So, while Medieval Europe is heavily wrought in our collective imaginations, Ancient Africa is lost. James’ novel is an effort to correct this, hopefully enabling us to discover a fuller and more vibrant picture of Africa.
Tracker and Leopard embark on what seems a simple journey to rescue a child who has been missing for three years. As the task becomes ever more complicated and allegiances change, they slowly start to question whether the child is actually worth saving.
The novels opening lines haunt you throughout, ‘The child is dead, there is nothing left to know. I hear there is a queen in the south who kills the man who brings her bad news. So when I give her word of the boy’s death, do I write my own with it?’
James will be the first to tell you that this is only Tracker’s account of what happened. We as readers begin to question whether this story is the truth. It gets more complicated; the Dark Star Trilogy is made up of three different accounts of what happened, and the reader will be left to decide which is true. In many traditions of African storytelling, the story is told by a ‘trickster’ who the audience knows cannot be trusted. James use of this mode of storytelling leaves to us to draw conclusions from the differing accounts.
For all its ambition, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a humbling story asking very human questions; ‘I wanted to tell him I had come searching for myself’, Tracker says to himself. Much of the novel is a search for identity — within the community where Tracker is born, he is told that he is neither male nor female and yet he so desperately wants to identify: ‘You will always feel the strength of one and the pain of the other’. James’ world has no need for labels.
Tracker wrestles with his masculinity too and I feel for him, ‘Happiness? Who needs happy when there is masuku beer? And spicy meat, good coin, and warm bodies to lie with? Besides, to be a man in my family is to let go of happiness, which depends on too many things one cannot control’. Sound familiar?
I’ve read this book once and I’m reading it again. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is proof that fantasy fiction has the power to communicate deeply moving human messages.