In February this year, Marlon James delivered the annual J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature, at Pembroke College, Oxford. James spoke about the creative process that went into the writing of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, about the human need for stories, and about growing up in Jamaica without a body of myth to draw upon or call one’s own. Q&As began. Before long, the inevitable question was asked: that iconic broadsheet of literary criticism in the English-speaking world, The New Yorker, had headlined its January profile of James with “Why Marlon James Decided to Write an African ‘Game of Thrones’”—the culmination of many months of the book being “billed” as such. Was it really? James laughed ruefully and issued a mea culpa. An interviewer had asked him for something pithy, and he had come up with this off the cuff. Who could have foreseen that it would become such a thing?
But James hardly bears sole responsibility for a comparison of this kind. The hardback edition of Black Leopard, Red Wolf carries a single blurb recommendation, by Neil Gaiman. This is what Gaiman has to say:
A dangerous, hallucinatory, ancient Africa, which becomes a fantasy world as well realized as anything Tolkien made, with language as powerful as Angela Carter’s. It’s as deep and crafty as Gene Wolfe, bloodier than Robert E. Howard, and all Marlon James. It’s something new that feels old, in the best way. (emphasis added)
I suspect that Africa is a Country would have a field day with Gaiman’s bizarre articulation of a “dangerous, hallucinatory, ancient Africa” (maybe The Lord of the Rings should be described as a fantasy about a “barbaric, primitive, medieval Europe?”). But more than that, the examples are telling. When characterizing the genre work of a black, Jamaican writer, which is set in the African continent, all Gaiman can do by way of comparison is fall back upon two white Brits and two white Americans (one of whom is primarily known for creating Conan the Barbarian!). For Gaiman, it would seem, if you write fantasy of the kind James has written, you have neither contemporaries nor predecessors. Black Leopard, Red Wolf exists in a literary vacuum. And so it becomes imperative to compare James with early and mid-twentieth-century Anglo-American writers, rather than, say, a Jennifer Makumbi (for a “well-realized fantasy world”), an Amos Tutuola (if we’re talking “deep and crafty”), a Ben Okri (if we’re talking powerful language), or a Sony Lab’ou Tansi (for the bloodiness quotient). “Something new that feels old” has all the ignorant, almost unconsciously demeaning ring of a “Christopher Columbus discovered America”: Gaiman is our twenty-first-century Columbus, who has just spotted land from the deck of the Santa Maria, in all its scintillating “newness”; never mind who already lives there.
But perhaps this is unduly harsh on Gaiman. A blurb is, after all, dictated by the requirements of the market. Presumably, blurb comparisons with Tutuola or Tansi—or even Jemisin or Okorafor or Oyeyemi or Shawl—would not make for good sales in the US or the UK, never mind the fact that the author is a Booker Prize winner. This suggests that the problem is institutional: English-language fantasy is defined by paradigms established by a certain set of writers, and any piece of writing that identifies itself as fantasy must be measured against those paradigms, even if only to call attention to how it undermines or subverts them. This is why (with a few exceptions) reviews of Black Leopard, Red Wolf that object to the Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings comparisons nonetheless remain chained to those paradigms: it’s not Game of Thrones because it’s “weirder and twistier”; it’s not The Lord of the Rings, because it “goes far beyond.” But the default remains.
This is, of course, not a new observation, and this state of affairs is unlikely to change any time soon. So, if the default remains, I want to argue in this review that Black Leopard, Red Wolf upsets the paradigms of Anglo-American fantasy in a more foundational manner. I don’t mean to simply repeat the rather basic observation that the novel “expand[s] the fantasy genre to accommodate motifs, themes, and characters inspired by African culture.” It very obviously does so, and in many ways: the geographical and spatial settings, the plurality of social and cultural ways in which the novel’s thirteen kingdoms are organised, the store of myths that undergird the narrative, and, of course, the panoply of mythical creatures that have their time upon the stage. Nor is it—to adopt Amal el-Mohtar’s pithily accurate description—only “horror and tragedy by way of fantasy, nothing discrete, everything penetrating everything else” (although it is that, of course). Rather, in two fundamental ways—in its use of language, and in its subversion of what readers are meant to expect from a novel in the epic-fantasy genre—Black Leopard, Red Wolf departs from the default.
“We have come a long way, Sogolon,” says Tracker, the protagonist and the “wolf” of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, midway through the novel. “Longer than I would have ever gone on half-truths and lies, but something about this story ... no, that’s not it. Something about you and the fish shaping this story, controlling so hard how each of us reads it, that turned into the only reason I came” (p. 372). Tracker may well be referring to James: information in Black Leopard, Red Wolf reveals itself under tight authorial control, with less always better than more. With the enigmatic opening lines, “the child is dead. There is nothing left to say” (p. 3), we are plunged into an ambiguous world, where events are often described without context, acts seemingly without motivations, and what we are told about the world is subject to constant revision or negation—all of which becomes a reason to read on.
Tracker, who possesses a unique ability to sniff out lost people, is hired by a slave trader to find a missing boy. Tracker joins a motley crew, comprising of his close associate—a shape-shifter known only as Leopard (the “black leopard” of the novel)—the slaver’s attendant, a witch called Sogolon, an “Ogo” (very large men used either as slave labour or as executioners), and others who join along the way, some of whom become enemies, and some lovers. It is unclear who the boy is, or why finding him is important. However, as the quest leads the seekers from place to place in and around the North Kingdom—cities with their own character, such as the ancient town of Malakal or Kongor with its Hall of Records, the mysterious and violent Darklands, and the arboreal realm of Dolingo—it becomes clear that what is at stake is more than simply recovering a kidnapped boy. A trail of bodies, the mysterious destruction by fire of the Hall of Records just when Tracker is on the cusp of discovering crucial information, clashes with the King’s terrifying servants; rumours of an impending war between the North and the South Kingdoms and the frequent appearances of the Omoluzu—roof-dwelling creatures that will dog someone forever after smelling their blood once, until they have killed them: all suggest that the future of the land hangs upon the success of the search.
At this stage, one may well think that the Lord of the Rings comparisons are not entirely unwarranted. After all, as Lin Carter wrote in his study of Tolkien, the “quest” and the “battle” have been the two foundational features of epic fantasy, including the proto-fantasy and medieval European epic cycles that influenced Tolkien. Black Leopard, Red Wolf has both, in spades. Tracker and his companions are in constant movement, facing a wide variety of challenges from men and beasts in a series of radically different environments, and they have to frequently fight their way out. Beyond that very surface-level similarity, however, James diverges swiftly and irrevocably. The members of Tracker’s “company” are a cynical, calculating lot, designed more to trigger alienation from the reader, rather than empathy. As this memorable exchange between Tracker, his lover and fellow-traveler Mosi, and a wounded Sogolon, testifies:
“See to your heart,” I said to her.
“My heart clear,” she said.
“It’s almost falling out of your chest.”
“It never cut deep.”
“Nothing seems to,” Mossi said. (p. 467)
This is an accurate character account of Sogolon, who more or less plays the “Gandalf” role of organizing and leading the company, but is evidently the opposite of Gandalf in every other respect imaginable. There is nothing of the stately or the noble in James’s characters. They are, rather, better summed up in the Tracker’s description of the Kingdom of Kalindar:
War-loving people, bitter and vengeful in hate, passionate and vigorous in love, who despised the gods and challenged them often. So of course I made it home. (p. 106)
War-loving is an apt word to start with, given how frequent—and how graphic—violence is in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, a point noted in almost every review. James himself has been on record explaining his use of violence as a literary device, and there is perhaps little to be gained by analysing that in any great detail, apart from the necessary observation that Black Leopard, Red Wolf should come along with multiple trigger warnings for rape, bestiality, dismemberment, mutilation, and sudden and violent death. What is of greater interest, however, is “passionate and vigorous in love,” because that provides a segue into something that is touched upon in many reviews, but not examined in any great detail (with a few exceptions): how foundational queerness is to the book.
From the beginning, the world of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is gender-fluid in a way that is not incidental, or an additional plot point, but simply as an essential building block of the world: something as natural as breath or food (alongside some effortless feminism to boot, as well). Tracker is a shoga, and both he and Leopard have male lovers. Additionally, their own relationship—although not sexual—is charged in a way that is comprehensible only within a worldview where, as James pointed out in an interview, there is nothing untoward about being “non-binary, gender fluid[...], shapeshifting, queer, gay, bisexual ... some African tribes, there’re 15 genders.” And this makes the relationship between Tracker and Leopard quite unlike anything else that we may have come across in the classics of the genre.
So far, however, one might still just about be able to make the case for the “African Game of Thrones.” After all, whatever one may say about the qualities of George R.R. Martin, squeamishness or an aversion to violence do not rank among them. Game of Thrones has its own squabbling kingdoms, and many of its protagonists are thoroughly dislikeable characters. So, on an expanded definition of “African” (whatever that term might mean)—which might include the distinctive cosmology, mythos, and the gender-fluid world of Black Leopard, Red Wolf—one might still just say “African Game of Thrones.”
It is here that the foundational differences become significant. Many reviews have remarked upon James’s use of language. “Vigorous, bathetic prose,” says one; “viscous to gushing to grand”, says another; but it is that New Yorker profile that really hits home when it contextualizes James’s use of language within a longer, historical “dilemma ... of using the colonizer’s language to represent the post-colonial world.” The New Yorker profile refers to Derek Walcott, V.S. Naipaul, and Chimamanda Adichie; the way that James uses and subverts language in Black Leopard, Red Wolf is, however—in my view—closest to the famous twentieth-century Zimbabwean writer Dambuzdo Marechera. In The Houses of Hunger, Marechera wrote:
As far as expressing the creative turmoil within my head was concerned, I took to the English language as a duck takes to water. I was therefore a keen accomplice and student in my own mental colonization. At the same time of course there was the unease, the shock of being suddenly struck by stuttering, of being deserted by the very medium I was to use in all my art. This perhaps is in the undergrowth of my experimental use of English, standing it on its head, brutalizing it into a more malleable shape for my own purposes. For a black writer the language is very racist; you have to have harrowing fights and hair-raising panga duels with the language before you can make it do all that you want it to do. It is so for the feminists. English is very male. Hence feminist writers also adopt the same tactics. This may mean discarding grammar, throwing syntax out, subverting images from within, beating the drum and cymbals of rhythm, developing torture chambers of irony and sarcasm, gas ovens of limitless black resonance. For me this is the impossible, the exciting, the voluptuous blackening image that commits me totally to writing. (p. 7, emphasis added)
It is this that explains much of the linguistic virtuosity in Black Leopard, Red Wolf that would otherwise make little sense. As Adrienne Rich wrote, “this is the oppressor’s language .../yet I need it to talk to you.” Talk, and how! And of course, there is something particularly singular about using this approach to language in a work that is otherwise recognizable as an epic fantasy, where the whole purpose of language has always been to accentuate the grandeur of the setting. Again, James’s slaver might well be talking about James when he says, “words are muddy where they should be clear, clear where they should be muddy” (pp. 153-4).
The muddiness is not limited to words. In the previous section, I wrote about how the world of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is subject to constant revision and negation. This applies, with equal force, to the entire raison d’être of Tracker’s quest, the finding of the lost boy. At one point, in a rare moment of raw weakness, Tracker says that “this boy is now the only thing that will make my life seem as if the past few days have any sense to them” (p. 433). Tracker, of course, is expressing the very elementary, the very human, need to feel as if our life has some meaning, to impose a pattern upon it that will help us escape from the “terrifying ambiguity of the moment.” And it is that need that has driven the genre for so long: without entering into the debate of whether and to what extent contemporary fantasy is escapist, from the nostalgic past-facing works of William Morris, into the world that Tolkien built, and even in more recent and more nuanced approaches to the genre (including Martin’s), fantasy has, at the very least, been about an escape from what often seems to be the meaninglessness of existence. Whether or not heroes are likeable or unlikeable, whether they survive or get killed off, and across a spectrum of difference in many other respects, there is one point of unity: there is something at stake, something that goes beyond the humdrum of daily existence, something important that matters. To understand the point, we can think of many words that we might tag on to “fantasy” (high fantasy, epic fantasy, and so on), but there would be something decidedly strange about a sub-genre titled “existential fantasy” or “nihilist fantasy.”
Black Leopard, Red Wolf, however, denies us refuge in meaning. At the end of the book, a reader who has become thoroughly invested in the story (as I was) is left with many questions. One of those questions, terrifyingly, is: “what was it all for?” And it is at that level, at the level of what a reader is entitled to expect when they pick up a fantasy novel, that Black Leopard, Red Wolf defies all attempts at comparison with the Gaiman-esque canons of the fantasy world. As the Leopard says, ruefully: “Nothing you ever say ends the way I think you would end it, Tracker” (p. 476).