Marlon James' legendary Africa is a match for Middle-Earth

by Sam Finnemore / 27 February, 2019
Stratospheric expectations: Marlon James. Photo/Jeffrey Skemp/Supplied

Stratospheric expectations: Marlon James. Photo/Jeffrey Skemp/Supplied

RelatedArticlesModule - Marlon James black leopard red wolf book review

The Booker winner has penned an African fantasy saga to rival Tolkien in the first part of a planned series.

Marlon James’ fourth novel has already been showered in Tolkien comparisons, but don’t expect a genteel tale of an unexpected journey. Black Leopard, Red Wolf opens as it means to go on – with defiance and challenge, as a captive showers his interviewer in threats and insults. The prisoner is Tracker, a supernaturally gifted mercenary known by no other name. The story he grudgingly unfolds is one of a strange and dangerous quest. It’s also a story he insists is over: “The boy is dead. What else is there to know?”

There’s plenty, but none of it is given up easily or comfortably, as you’d expect from the author of the kaleidoscopic and confronting Booker Prize winner A Brief History of Seven Killings. That novel took recent Jamaican history as a jumping-off point for an exploration of violence, desire and identity; this time around James is working those themes across a mythical canvas of his own design, combining oral tradition and history into an expansive, legendary Africa that matches Middle-earth or Westeros for scope and sheer creative energy.

What really sets Black Leopard, Red Wolf apart from these common points of comparison, apart from a blessed absence of dead-horse fantasy trappings, is a truly astonishing depth of character development. The richness and believability of motivations, beliefs and contradictions go far beyond the patronising expectations set for “literary fantasy”. We’re in the territory of fine literature full stop, and none of it is compromised even for a moment by plot machinations or by some high authority laying down an unambiguous just cause to be pursued. Every step forward is a real choice with a real cost.

And it really is a dangerous world – no matter where James’ unconventional fellowship find themselves, it is steeped in blood and more besides. Protagonist Tracker is constantly bristling against it, inventively brutal and gloriously sharp-tongued against all comers. The shape-shifting Leopard is not to be trifled with, either, but offers a sly, relaxed foil to Tracker’s volatility and gently (and not so gently) prods him towards deeper self-awareness.

The journey and the personalities involved don’t make any allowance for love – Tracker denies its existence outright – but nevertheless it quietly works its way in. Any peaceful moments are scarce and fleeting, but they’re earned.

James’ pantheon of gods big and small, demons, witches and anti-witches lend a fever-dream edge to the setting.

For those unfamiliar with the cultural underpinnings, it all feels radically fresh and new, with a hint of deeper meanings layered beneath. Readers with an understanding of African mythology will get a richer experience still, and even without direct access to that dimension of enjoyment, recognising its presence in the novel is exciting in itself.

As a work of epic fantasy from a Man Booker winner, and coming at what feels like a watershed moment globally for stories by, of and for people of colour, pre-release expectations for Black Leopard, Red Wolf have been stratospheric. They’ve been fully rewarded. I’d hazard a guess that James will find a way to turn sequel convention on its head as ably as he’s upended so many others, but any hints at the continuing story are well concealed. The only certainty, on the current evidence, is that it’ll be well worth the wait.

BLACK LEOPARD, RED WOLF, Marlon James (Michael Joseph, $38)

This article was first published in the February 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


Mapping the second brain: The latest science on the effect of your gut bacteria
104884 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Health

Mapping the second brain: The latest science on th…

by Donna Chisholm

Most of us have heard the five-plus-a-day message for fruit and vegetables. But new research into gut health suggests that advice may need tweaking.

Read more
How a mother and daughter changed their diet to manage irritable bowel syndrome
104896 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Nutrition

How a mother and daughter changed their diet to ma…

by Donna Chisholm

A mother and daughter with irritable bowel syndrome say that diet was the missing ingredient in controlling the condition.

Read more
Lack of humility is Simon Bridges' fatal flaw
104881 2019-04-23 00:00:00Z Politics

Lack of humility is Simon Bridges' fatal flaw

by Graham Adams

After low polling and even louder caucus rumblings, you’d expect to see at least a flicker of fear in the eyes of someone threatened with an axe.

Read more
Sri Lankan government's social media ban wrong move after terror attacks
104949 2019-04-23 00:00:00Z World

Sri Lankan government's social media ban wrong mov…

by Meera Selva

Sri Lanka has temporarily banned social media and messaging apps in the wake of the coordinated Easter Sunday attacks on churches and hotels.

Read more
Why do some dramas require the female protagonists to be total idiots?
104764 2019-04-23 00:00:00Z Television

Why do some dramas require the female protagonists…

by Diana Wichtel

Diana Wichtel reviews SoHo 2’s Cheat and Lightbox’s BBC thriller Trust Me.

Read more
Why the typical NZ household is undergoing a revolution
104877 2019-04-23 00:00:00Z Property

Why the typical NZ household is undergoing a revol…

by Shamubeel Eaqub

We’re living in different places, having fewer kids, living longer and getting older, perhaps lonelier, and the idea of a family has become more fluid

Read more
Detour off E Street: Steven Van Zandt’s solo excursion to NZ
104828 2019-04-22 00:00:00Z Profiles

Detour off E Street: Steven Van Zandt’s solo excur…

by Russell Baillie

The Springsteen sideman and ‘Sopranos’ star is reviving his own music career.

Read more
Rethinking the Kiwi dream: How New Zealanders live now
104848 2019-04-22 00:00:00Z Property

Rethinking the Kiwi dream: How New Zealanders live…

by Sharon Stephenson

Would you live with your ex? New Zealanders increasingly live alone or find creative ways to house themselves.

Read more