One marker of a new book’s strength is how many older books echo within its pages — and how they are made to sound new by such resonances. By this and many other measures, “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” the first work of fantasy (and the launch of a planned trilogy) by the Booker Prize-winning novelist Marlon James, is strong indeed.
Much of the novel’s architecture, from its place names (Juba, Ku, and Gangatom) to its fantastical elements (witches called Sangomas; were-hyenas Bultungi), comes from Africa. Likewise, James’s narrative style channels the griot tradition of oral storytelling: “Shall I give you a story? I am just a man who some have called wolf . . . I will give you a story. It begins with a Leopard. And a witch. Grand Inquisitor. Fetish priest.” And, as befits this mode of storytelling, the novel is twisty, spinning things out and then drawing them back in — a ceaseless narrative engine in a constant state of revving.
But there is more: “The Lord of the Rings’’ (in both J. R. R. Tolkien and James, an unlikely band sets off on an adventure); Gene Wolfe’s “The Book of the New Sun’’ (in both, our narrator moves through a series of surrealistic territories, each weirder than the last); and Samuel Delaney’s entire corpus (like Delaney, James makes queer and nonwhite a genre that, in the popular imagination if not in actuality, has seemed monolithically heterosexual and white).
These are, to a certain extent, expected samplings. You can’t write a sweeping fantasy without invoking, or revoking, Tolkien; Wolfe’s writing has long been a shibboleth of fantasy readers. But other, more unlikely ghosts lurk, too.
You don’t expect to think of Joan Didion while reading a book featuring lightning-blooded vampires and necromancers called “white scientists” because “even their skin rebel[s] against their evil, for there is only so much vileness that your own skin can agree to.” But then you read this throwaway phrase: “I let the half-blind man live because we need stories in order to live.” That’s Didion’s famous line, transported into a vampire story.
What I’m saying is, James continually surprises — not least in his cashing in of his literary cred for the chance to write straight fantasy. (Though not straight straight: James’s narrator is gay, as are several of his traveling companions.) What I’m saying is, “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” is the real deal.
Summarizing the snaking plot is a fool’s errand — an appropriate phrase, since its main storyline is a search for a missing boy that at times seems more fool’s errand than epic quest. The narrator, a man simply known as Tracker, has spent his life stripping away his self (also his clothes — this novel doesn’t want for sex), whittling his ethical commitments and his affective investments down to nothing: “I have always been an edge man, always on the coast, always by the boundary. That way nobody knows if I have just come or was turning to leave.”
That word, “nobody,’’ is the one Odysseus uses to trick the Cyclops in The Odyssey, and similar words of negation crop up whenever Tracker speaks: “I don’t believe in belief”; “Nobody loves no one.” Leopard, a shape-shifter who Tracker by turns loves, lusts after, and hates, puts it this way: “[T]he Tracker I know has nothing and cultivates nothing.”
Yet Tracker comes to know many things over the course of the novel, and he comes to cultivate, or at least to feel claimed by, various kinds of intimacy: a complicated love for Leopard and another mercenary named Mossi; a more purely self-giving love for the mingi, a group of misfit children believed to be cursed.
As we move through James’s maze-like plot, we journey through floating cities and enchanted forests and magical portals. We encounter mysteries of royal succession (who is the rightful king of the North Kingdom?) and of physics (does a floating city float by means of science, magic, or brutality?)
During the novel’s many battle scenes, the writing can become plodding, like the script notes for a blockbuster action movie: “I dropped to a squat and swung for his legs but he jumped and flapped his wings and his head burst through the hut roof.” But then James will shift from these ho-hum physical clashes to more exciting bouts of verbal sparring, both in the form of dialogue (Tracker’s bitchy banter is perfect throughout) and in the form of storytelling.
Tracker tells stories, and so does Leopard, and so does everyone we meet. As one character says, “There is no straight line between us and this boy, only streams leading to streams, leading to streams, and sometimes — and tell me if I lie — you get so lost in the stream that the boy fades, and with him the reason you search for him.” There’s no straightness here; it’s all streams leading to streams, adventures leading to adventures, stories leading to stories.
Like the best fantasy, like the best literary fiction, like the best art period, “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” is uncanny: familiar and strange, a book that dramatizes the search for meaning — the meaning of suffering and sex and self — and the fear that “looking for meaning will drive you mad.” These are perennial concerns, and what makes “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” so singular is how traditional and novel, how ancient and radical — that is to say, how good — it is.
By Marlon James
Riverhead, 620 pp., $30
The Boston Globe may earn a portion of sales from products that are purchased through our site as part of our Affiliate Partnerships with retailers.
Anthony Domestico is an associate professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.’’