Marlon James won the Booker Prize for his last book, A History of Seven Killings. The fact that he is a known “literary” writer, makes his foray into the world of fantasy newsworthy. In fact, the first book in his Dark Star Trilogy, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, has been compared to Game of Thrones. It should be said, first and foremost that even James has repudiated this comparison. Besides that fact that the two series can broadly fit into the fantasy genre and are both full of sex and violence, there is not much to compare them. In its leaning on African mythology, Black Leopard, Red Wolf sits closer to Ben Okri than George RR Martin.
When the book opens Tracker is in prison. His inquisitor wants to know what has happened to the child. A child that Tracker was searching for, found, lost again, searched for again, found and then killed. Tracker tells him the story of this quest, not in a straight-forward way, but in a round about, story within story way that goes back to his own origins. It takes a long time before he actually gets to the quest itself, and even then, its origins are obscured. It takes even longer before Tracker understands the value of the boy they are looking for to different factions vying for power across what is known as the Northern Kingdom.
When the quest begins in earnest, Tracker is joined by a group of others, many of whom he either openly dislikes or distrusts. The group soon disintegrates, with many of the characters disappearing from the story for long periods. Similarly other characters, like Tracker’s on-again off-again friend Leopard drop in and out of the story. James has said that his trilogy will explore the events of this book from other perspectives so perhaps their stories will be picked up in those books. Either way, it makes this volume, for all its length, seem incomplete.
So at its heart, this is a quest story. But it is an incredibly unsatisfying one. From the outset we know the general outline of the story – search for boy, find boy, lose boy, search again, kill boy. The story is there to fill in the why. Only the why, when it finally comes is at best underwhelming. So the question then is what to make of the journey itself. And that journey boils down to a series of graphically violent confrontations with a series of supernatural beings, interspersed with equally graphic sexual encounters. While it does eventually resolve and some pathos is derived from Tracker’s early life, the whole does not cohere into anything more engaging.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is wild, confronting fantasy. While there’s a quest at its centre, plenty of maps and magical creatures, it certainly breaks from the often safer Tolkien-esque fantasy mould. But it does not replace that tradition with anything particularly coherent. Recent African-influenced speculative fiction by new authors like Tade Thompson or Tomi Adeyemi provide much richer, consistent worlds to explore.