Inside “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” Marlon James’ “African Game of Thrones”

Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy”. 

That is precisely what a majority of fantasy series are- a melting pot of tragedy, happiness and really any powerful emotion that you can think of. HBO’s Game of Thrones was one of the best examples of sorrow and pain leading people to do incredible things. 

But, if you ask a group of fans about the series finale, you will probably get a whole range of reactions. Among the mixed reviews, many will say that they’re waiting for George R.R. Martin to finish his epic high fantasy series that the show was based on and that it will, for sure, be better than the last episode.

It’s been at least seven years since Martin last updated his Song of Ice and Fire series (not counting the prequels) that is based on the War of Roses between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians. The long delay is pretty standard for any writer who has a notoriously complex universe to add to. Stephen King, Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss are just some who have had fans waiting (in the past and currently) on the edge of their seats for the release of their next adventure.

Well, for all impatient fans, there may just be a way to get back to the thrill and wonder of Martin’s series. It’s just not through Martin. 

Man Booker award winner Marlon James, a Jamaican author best known for A Brief History of Seven Killings, came out with a book in 2019 titled Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Even before it was released, he talked about wanting to make it the “African Game of Thrones”. A lot of people use well known series as bench marks to aspire to and do end up embodying some of the techniques that the original writers use. James, however, built a world that is surprisingly alien from the one he is allegedly trying to recreate, but it is just as gripping.

Marlon James

The New York Times Best Seller follows Tracker, a hunter/ mercenary who has been hired to find a missing child, and Leopard, a shape shifting, well, leopard. The story (without giving away any major spoilers) starts with Tracker being interrogated about why “the child is dead”. That’s actually the first sentence of the book and the most used quote in all reviews of the book. Tracker goes on to narrate the events leading up to him landing in the jail cell that he is currently in. 

The first chapter is available to read online and, really, sets the tone for the entire book. It’s almost as if we were inside his mind and just reading the mishmash of thoughts and feelings that he was experiencing. James’ style for this book may be off putting if you’re not a fan of writing that is too on the nose, but the world that he has constructed can more than make up for it. It is everything that Game of Thrones was: dark, intense, emotional, featuring characters that are either all too willing to leave their past behind and create new futures or are bound by duty to the land and people that they serve. 

But, what makes his Dark Star series (set to be a trilogy) particularly unique is that it is entirely set in his version of the African continent and uses myths and legends native to the tribes that have lived there for centuries. It also takes story-telling one step further with the added mystery of a lot of the legends it references which a majority of the English speaking world may know nothing about.

The map of James’ fantasy world

James’ protagonists come from a land where everything is fluid: gender, morality, the line between the human and spiritual worlds. His exploration of gender and sexuality is one that we have not seen in other mainstream English authors. Tracker’s sexual preferences and gender identity draw on the way that pre-colonial Africa (and really, many other indigenous peoples of former colonies) saw gender and sex. 

In an interview, James, who is himself an openly gay man, revealed that in his research he found that some African tribes had as many as 14 genders that an individual could identify with. That was the norm, and it is treated as such by the everyone in the book as well. While many of us are more familiar with society reacting negatively to such issues, like in Trudi Caravan’s Black Magician trilogy, James’ book is like a breath of fresh air. It is able to explore these topics without turning Tracker’s sexual orientation into one of the major arcs of the book. 

James has written one of the more divisive books when it comes to critics and reviews. Some have referred to the book as too violent and clichéd- it is violent, yes, but whether it is clichéd is ultimately a matter of taste. But even reviews that are positive, don’t have critics saying that they loved it. It is a book to be respected and, as one review puts it, “admired from afar”, like a wild animal. Interesting analogy given that one of the titular characters is, in fact, a wild animal. 

But if everything about the book is so unique and different to things that currently exist in the fantasy sphere, why call it an African Game of Thrones? For James, the phrase does not mean that it should be compared to Martin’s series but that even the cultures that have long been shunned from mainstream media have rich and complex legends and stories that should be equally celebrated. Maybe, in a few years, he may regret the way that people interpret that title as it does create constant comparison with a vastly different type of series. For a book written with so much heart, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, with its blood and gore, detailed violence and tragedy, is not for the faint of heart but it appears to be the first instalment in a series that will undoubtedly define James’ career.

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