The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.
I imagine there will be a deluge of reviews of this book over the next few weeks. The trickle has already begun. No doubt we’ll be subjected to plenty of sentences like this one, penned by the estimable Jeff VanderMeer, “Some readers may be surprised that Marlon James has followed up his epic, critically acclaimed, 2015 Man Booker-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings with a fantasy novel.” And, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be quickly off-put by the vast amount of ink spilled by critics on the topic of (gay) sex in the novel.
Thinking it’s icky that Marlon James would write so much graphic gay sex in his novel is homophobic.
So, upfront, yes this is a fantasy novel. No that is not surprising–A Brief History of Seven Killings‘ first chapter is narrated by a ghost, clearly James has no devotion to what he calls “domestic realism”. Yes there is graphic sex (and sexual violence) in this novel. This is a work of adult literature. Just because it lives firmly in the ghetto of genre does not mean that it is (by any means) suitable for children. Moreover, this is not the first fantasy novel to include graphic sex scenes (and sexual violence). It is not even out of the mainstream in that way–sex plays a crucial role in the novel but only insofar as sex plays a crucial role in any given life. And finally, yes, this is a novel that actively takes from West and Central African mythology rather than the European mythology many readers have grown accustomed to. While what James does with the mythology is new, amazing, and often breath-taking, he is neither the first nor even the first-recently to attempt a radically decolonized fantastic fiction (I’ll append a list to the end of the article, for those interested in further reading). And, lastly, I’m not going to focus on the griot tradition he’s riffing on throughout the novel. I’m not an expert, and I’m not sure I can add anything worthwhile to that discussion. Rather: I want to look at Black Leopard, Red Wolf from an altogether different perspective.
How this book is different from other fantasy novels will be much talked about. Like any so-called “crossover” work, it will be thoroughly scrubbed of all genre taint by well-meaning reviewers and critics. And while that will no doubt boost book sales and allow the book to get the award recognition it mightily deserves, those reviewers will be tragically missing the point: Black Leopard, Red Wolf is only as different from other fantasy novels as they are from each other.
It is not different in kind.
That may seem counterintuitive to the uninitiated. Fantasy can seem monolithic, tethered to the cis-hetero-white-male-heroic-narrative like an ox-Sisyphus forced to plow the same field over and over again for eternity. But this is not the case. From the get-go, fantasy was a chimera, an unstable admixture of different voices, styles, tastes, and interests. Tolkien’s world, while seminal (and vastly misunderstood), was particular to him, idiosyncratic–filled with his interests, obsessions, and particularities like all any great work of literature are (see: whaling in Moby Dick and farming in Anna Karenina). Before Frodo and his party had even set out for Mordor in the summer of 1954, Mervyn Peake was two books into his spectacular Gormenghast series, Lovecraft had produced his entire oeuvre, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were well into their adventures, Robert E. Howard was already dead, and Burroughs had long since completed his “planetary romances” (and was also already dead). The marquee fantasy books of the seventies and eighties drew liberally from all those wells, and many more. And since the turn of this century, we have seen the ascendancy in the genre of voices as varied as they were once homogeneous.
The question is not how Marlon James stands outside this list, but where his place is within it.
Jeff VanDermeer’s review, while it starts out shaky and falls into that sticky homophobic trap (“Have I mentioned there’s a lot of gay sex? There’s a lot of gay sex.” THANKS), does shed some light on a major influence on James’ novel:
The novel isn’t so much heroic fantasy, with noble quests and sacrifices and a traditional story arc of Good versus Evil, but instead becomes an essential part of the canon for heroic fantasy’s no-good cousin: Swords and Sorcery.
The lead characters (after whom the novel is named), Tracker and Leopard do have a queer Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser way about them–if you were to stir in healthy doses of hatred and sexual attraction. VanDermeer sees their reluctant questing as a continuation of the Howard/Leiber lineage of fantasy that birthed the likes of Michael Moorcock and his Elric of Melniboné stories. I can definitely see from where he’s coming on this. Take this interaction, for example:
“You don’t waste time so waste it I will not. Three years now a child they take, a boy. He was just starting to walk and could say nana. Somebody take him one night. They leave nothing and nobody has ever demand ransom, not through note, not through drums, not even through witchcraft. I know the thinking, which you now think. Maybe they sell him to the secret witches market, a young child would bring much money to witches. But my caravan get protection from a Sangoma, just as one still binds you with protection even after her death. But you knew this, didn’t you, Tracker? The Leopard thinks iron arrows bounce away from you because they are scared.”
“There are still things to tell you,” I said to the leopard with a look.
“The child we trust to a housekeeper in Kongor. Then one night somebody cut the throat of everybody in the house but steal the child. Eleven in the house all murdered.”
“Three years ago? Not only are they far ahead in the game, they might have already won.”
“Is not a game,” he said.
“The mouse never thinks so, but the cat does. You have not finished your tale and it already sounds impossible. But finish.”
Here, Black Leopard, Red Wolf feels like an evocation of that nearly dead form. The banter of a job being considered; the mysteries buried in every sentence (Who? What? Why? How?); this is not the epic obviousness of Tolkien. This is the grey-and-greyer mythology of Sword and Sorcery that claims Noir narrative as its closest cousin.
But Black Leopard, Red Wolf is not a Sword and Sorcery novel. It is an Epic. It is an Epic Fantasy–though I’m not sure falls under the “epic fantasy” sub-genre.
The epic it most resembles (for a Western-influenced reader), as another reviewer wisely noted, is Beowulf. Like the classic Anglo-Saxon poem, James’ novel tumbles from one adventure to the next, often without apparent connection. The “main narrative” is–perhaps–the thread that ties the whole novel together; but, like any single thread, it does not represent the tapestry as a whole. The first section of the book (encompassing over a hundred pages) doesn’t even touch on the “main narrative”. Everything in this book is interspersed, tangential, and refuses simple linearity. Beowulf was meant to be spoken, and so–I think–was this novel. I imagine the audiobook will be mind-blowing. But I can even imagine sections sung.
Overall, I found James incredibly liberal with his references and influences. For example: Black Leopard, Red Wolf has an enormous amount of Gene Wolfe’s criminally under-read The Shadow of the Torturer in its DNA. Severian and Tracker have little in common as characters, but their slipperiness–their loose connection to the Truth–makes me believe that they’d get along rather well if they ever met (unlikely). New Weird authors like China Miéville and, in fact, Jeff VanderMeer peek through in parts throughout the novel (esp. descriptions of jungle reminded me of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy). Neil Gaiman too, a bit; though maybe they have more of a sibling-relationship. Both Gaiman and James are preoccupied with stories and, more acutely, the people who tell them. Tracker’s no Anansi, but the Spider’s as important to Black Leopard, Red Wolf as he is to Gaiman’s American Gods and Anansi Boys.
I would like to believe the work of Samuel R. Delaney had some influence over the novel as well, though I’m not sure. The authors’ connections are many and varied beyond their race gender and sexuality, though their interests run down somewhat different channels. Their mutual unflattering/unflinching depictions of sex might be blinding me to some inherent difference, but without Delaney I don’t know if there could have been a James.
Finally, there is A Song of Ice and Fire. There has been some talk of Black Leopard, Red Wolf being the “African Game of Thrones“. And I can see an argument for that proposition. Both seek to obliterate tropes, rework a grand narrative for a modern audience, and create a new form of Fantasy for future generations to enjoy. But there are fundamental differences between the two series that I can’t imagine bridged by that shared goal.
Martin’s genius is all in his plotting and characters. Over the course of five books (and a TV series that had, at one point, much to do with those books, but now does not), he’s created dozens of characters that the audience loves, hates, worries over, etc.; all while treating them with the mercilessness their situations requires. Heroes Die, as another criminally under-read SF/F novel would have said. Over the course of the series, Martin’s slipped somewhat in his resolve to create a bleak, realistic version of Tolkien’s medieval fantasy–but still, no one comes close to the detail and seriousness of his world (except, perhaps, Steven Erikson)
On the other hand, while the characters that inhabit James’ world are definitely fully-realized and interesting, they’re not where his genius lies (though Tracker is a marvel). Nor–no surprise here–is the plot. What Marlon James did in Black Leopard, Red Wolf is heighten the language of the genre to a level that only a few other writers have achieved (Susanna Clarke, Kelly Link, Miéville, and John Crowley come to mind). He doesn’t subvert tropes by playing into them then pulling the proverbial rug from under his readers, he simply ignores them altogether. There’s an unstuckness to this novel that feels amazingly fresh. A mental limberness. Often, writers who step into other mythologies will bring the template of European mythology along with them. Even Tomi Adeyemi with her much-acclaimed Y.A. novel Children of Blood and Bone never steps far from the warm stream of contemporary Y.A. narratives (INJUSTICE, PEOPLE HATE MAGIC, ACTION PRINCESS, ETC.). The changes, if you’ll forgive the bad joke, are only skin deep. But it’s not like that with this book. Through some combination of excellent research, seriousness of purpose, and powerful imagination, James leaves us fully immersed in his world–from the speech pattern of his narrator, to structure of the telling:
The third story.
A queen of a kingdom in the West said she would pay me well to find her King. Her court thought she was mad, for the King was dead, drowned five years now, but I had no problem with finding the dead. I took her down payment and left for where those dead by drowning lived.
I kept walking until I came to an old woman by a river with a tall stick sitting at the banks. Her hair white at the sides, her head bald at the top. Her face had lines like paths in the forest and her yellow teeth meant her breath was foul. The stories say she rises each morning youthful and beautiful, blooms full and comely by midday, ages to a crone by nightfall, and dies at midnight to be born again the next hour. The hump on her back was higher than her head, but her eyes twinkled, so her mind was sharp. Fish swam right up to the point of the stick but never went beyond.
“Why have you come to this place?” she asked.
“This is the way of Monono,” I said.
“Why have you come to this place? A living man?”
“Life is love and I have no love left. Love has drained itself from me, and run to a river like this one.”
“It’s not love you have lost, but blood. I will let you pass. But when I lay with a man I live without dying for seventy moons.”
So I f****d the crone. She lay on her back by the bank, her feet in the river. She was nothing but bones and leather, but I was hard for her and full with vigor.
For reference, this scene takes place on page nine. George R.R. Martin might be transgressive, but he’s no Marlon James.
Everything in Black Leopard, Red Wolf is so steeped in mythology, it’s often impossible to separate research from invention. The world feels lushly real, to an extent only few other authors have ever accomplished (Neil Gaiman, for example).
So, the question remains: where does this novel sit in the great line of its kind?
I think Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a superlative, form-defining novel, like Martin’s series, Tolkien’s, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and John Crowley’s Little, Big. And if I were to draw Black Leopard, Red Wolf’s family tree, likely all of those books would be on it. With two books left to write, there’s a lot of room for improvement/failure, but, if this book is any indication, Marlon James’ series is likely to be one of the great works of literature of this decade. And one of the great works of fantasy ever.
The Famished Road, Ben Okri
Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi
The Fifth Season, N.K Jemisin
Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor
Rosewater, Tade Thompson
Nigerians in Space, Deji Bryce Olukotun
Some more interesting/non-traditional SF/F (especially by women & P.O.C)–
The Poppy War, R.F. Kuang
Meddling Kids, Edgar Cantero
Central Station, Lavie Tidhar
Jade City, Fonda Lee
Three Parts Dead, Max Gladstone
The Changeling, Victor LaValle
Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff
The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter
Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link
Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
Kindred, Octavia Butler