Marlon James won the Booker for A Brief History of Seven Killings, his bestselling novel about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley. Who knows what the judges will make of this gleeful and wholehearted leap into genre fiction: Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a vivid, bloody fantasy epic, playing out over more than 600 pages. James takes us into phantasmagorical pre-colonial African. He draws on the continent’s own tradition of legends and monsters — from the scaly, flesh-eating Asanbosam to the vampiric “lightning bird” Ipundulu — as well as making up his own, and conjures into life nightmarish forests and thriving metropolises alike.
Black Leopard sort of does for the fantasy narrative what Black Panther did for superhero movies; indeed, James has written of being inspired by superhero comics, while Black Panther’s Michael B Jordan has already bought the film rights. It could also make a terrifically gruesome 10-episode TV series in the style of Game of Thrones.
This is your classic quest narrative: Tracker, our narrator, is a tough, seemingly unsentimental young man “with a nose for finding what would rather stay lost.” His services are engaged on a mission to hunt down a missing boy, whose significance will only slowly be revealed. Joining him along the way are a motley assortment, from the shape-shifting man/cat Leopard to Sadogo, a giant trained to kill but with a soft heart, from a witch made of water called Bunshi to a sentient buffalo, to name but a few. While many of his ever-mutating “fellowship” are funny, and I became really rather fond of one or two, for the most part no-one is to be trusted.
The novel manages to be steeped in an ancient myth, while also speaking to the politics of the present. Black Leopard is set in an extraordinarily brutal world, full of rape, child murder, and torture tactics that outdo even GoT. Yet James also imbues his deeply flawed heroes with a progressive, rational, empathetic.
While sinking your teeth into such a fully-fleshed story is initially highly satisfying, after a while it becomes a tough old chew. It is hard not to get battle fatigue.