“The child is dead, there is nothing left to know” marks a definitive end, yet in Black Leopard Red Wolf, this very sentence signifies a turbulent beginning, increasing one’s thirst to delve deeper into the mystery rather than quenching it. A group of misfits head out on an epic quest to find the said child, and this search brings them face to face with mysteries as well as both their inner and outer demons. Leading readers into its dark labyrinth, the novel, the first of Booker-winning Marlon James’s Dark Star Trilogy, subverts the fantasy genre to create a never-before-seen world of enchantment.
In an internet and television infested world, a millennial’s worldview is informed by two major forces—fantasy and pop culture. While we spent our days of adolescence poring over our beloved Harry Potter books, the vastness of epic fantasy as a genre was fully revealed to us through the Lord of the Rings. In our adulthood we stumbled upon A Song of Ice and Fire, televised as Game of Thrones, and thought ourselves well accustomed with the shock value of tragic deaths. However, today’s readers of Brandon Sanderson or V.E Schwab are going to realize, sooner or later, that most of the epic fantasy we have been exposed to is based on a European lore. Kings, castles and dragons in a world of magic, elves, dwarves and more, heading out for a spirit of adventure and ultimately defeating the greatest evil in the seven (or more) kingdoms—this is pretty much how many of these stories unfold. Characters, or even entire nations of dark- or brown-skinned characters, such as the infamous Dothraki or the Unsullied, are often on the receiving end of these stories, or are portrayed as lesser beings. The story is no different for the other driving force of millennial culture—our superheroes. Only recently have we witnessed an African superhero as a force to be reckoned with in Black Panther. Otherwise, the world of crime-fighting comic book vigilantes is busy trying to hastily promote diversity and representation repackaged in old superhero costumes. Seeing the state of the two worlds, former Star Wars author Chuck Wendig went as far as tweeting, “Your world is too white and male and straight!”
Given the current state of affairs for genre fiction, constructing a world using stories from the African oral tradition, lore and customs is quite the leap of faith. For Marlon James, his shift toward genre fiction is even more of a daunting decision. A Brief History of Seven Killings, the book that won him the 2015 Man Booker Prize, is an intricately woven saga that spans decades, leading up to the attempted assassination of singing sensation Bob Marley. Seven Killings is closer to the present as well as to reality as it explores the dark, infernal nature of Jamaican politics, gang violence and organized crime. Talks of turning it into a television series are being heard, and we may soon be able to watch a series like La Casa De Papel or Sacred Games set in Jamaica. James’s announcement of writing an epic fantasy saga, that too, a full-fledged trilogy, was definitely a surprise for his fans. Yet, the writer boldly declares in an interview that he is not afraid to appreciate genre fiction or pop culture over “more serious” writing: “Despite it being impressed on me that this, over here, is literature, and comics are something different, I grew up refusing to distinguish between them. I am getting the same feeling from Love and Rockets that I’m getting from One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I’m supposed to look at one as, that’s comics and that’s a serious novel? From a very early age, I thought, that’s bullshit. The whole idea of a great American novel is bullshit.”
Strangely enough, Marlon James terms his new novel an “African Game of Thrones”. However, the book has little to do with royalty or those with direct political power. We make an entry into this mystical world through the narrator who introduces himself like this, “My name is Tracker. Once I had a name, but have long forgotten it.” The world remembers how Kylo Ren killed Han Solo in Star Wars, or how Huckleberry Finn ran away from home in search of a better life. Marlon James’s Tracker has done both as a young man—patricide and escaping home. He is an elusive lone ranger who prefers to go on his assignments alone. The man is reputed for having a “nose” that gives him a heightened sense of smell that helps him determine the whereabouts of his targets. Leopard, a fellow mercenary and a shapeshifter, meets Tracker at his lodgings in the great city of Malakal, luring him to go on a mission to find someone in exchange for a hefty amount. Tracker and Leopard soon realize that they are now a part of a fantastical collective which is on the exact same mission. Accompanying them are a century old witch called Sagolon, a gentle giant called Sadogo, a minor water goddess called Bunshi, a skin-shedding mercenary Nyka and even an adorable, intelligent buffalo. The strange company journeys through ancient, enchanted forests, battle demons that are alien to European fantasy readers and visit sprawling pre-colonial African cities teeming with life, crime and spectacles.
Indeed, Marlon James’s world building is replete with highly fantastical element, yet unlike CS Lewis’ Narnia, his world is no escape from the harsh realities of humankind. While ancient African monsters like Sasabosam and Asanbonsam feast on human carcasses after a ruthless kill, regular human beings in that infernal world are jousting with graphic murder, rape and torture. While James’s world has ruthless witches who trade in infants’ body parts, there is the affectionate Sangoma or anti-witch who gives shelter to Mingi—unfortunate yet gifted children with bodily anomalies. The author does not shy away from violent descriptions of atrocities, nor does he leave out sex or sexual identity. Many of the lead characters are homosexual or queer, and many of them have traumatic experiences that have shaped who they are as people, their sexual trauma included. The strong influence of magic does not conceal the true nature of humanity in its good and evil, in its tainted and pure shapes.
One cannot but have certain mixed feelings for Tracker. On the one hand is his ruthless, killer instinct and on the other are his trauma, trials and tribulations. He is a voice dead against slavery and female genital mutilation, yet he accepts that it is always the survival of the fittest. His interactions with his friend, Leopard, remind us of Chinua Achebe’s description of the Ibo oral tradition, “The art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.”
One of the things we take for granted in a usual fantasy is that everybody is faithful to the quest. However, Marlon James’s novel teems with betrayal. After all, in African storytelling the trickster tells the story, hence the reader is already dealing with an unreliable narrator.
Needless to say, all characters are distinctly African and declaredly black. The river tribesmen, the Ku and the Gangatom use mud to paint their bodies in different patterns, the mercenaries of Kongor don red and golden robes, the women smell like shea butter—there are no elves with blonde hair to be seen anywhere to disturb this pristine African experience. Author Victor LaValle, a contemporary of James, has verily remarked, “Every page reads like a corrective to what’s still too often left unstated about the fantasy genre: If literary ﬁction is quite white, fantasy is even whiter still.”
Qazi Mustabeen Noor is Staff Writer, Arts & Letters, Dhaka Tribune.