Tuesday 15 October 2019

Sub-Saharan epic mines a rich mythical tapestry

Fiction: Black Leopard, Red Wolf

Marlon James

Hamish Hamilton, hardback, 646 pages, €19.99

Treacherous dimension: the world James has created is a much more dangerous place than Tolkien's Middle Earth. Photo by David Levenson
Treacherous dimension: the world James has created is a much more dangerous place than Tolkien's Middle Earth. Photo by David Levenson
Black Leopard, Red Wolf

The "Black Panther effect" could be the desired outcome of this latest assault from Booker winner (for 2014's A Brief History of Seven Killings) and zeitgeist-seizing voice Marlon James. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is, by the Jamaican author's own admission, something of a response to the all-white casting in Peter Jackson's so-so Hobbit trilogy. Tireless research conducted deep into the ancient lore of his continent of origin revealed to James that Africa had a rich mythological tapestry there to be mined.

A fantasy epic, complete with the liberal blood-letting and bodice-ripping that the Game of Thrones generation now insists upon, was within reach, and there would be no need for any of the Anglo/Celtic/Saxon DNA that Tolkien or Martin were reliant on.

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All this means that the first chunks of this first instalment of James' mooted Dark Star Trilogy ring with exotic notes all too rare in western fantasy fiction (language, animated beings, flora and fauna that are recognisably higher up the food chain). There are rhythms here that are perplexing as well, a metre to the telling that is either the product of structural adherence by the author to the annals, or else the result of too much crowbarring of ideas and images into the space where a story should sit.

This is probably more the case with Black Leopard, Red Wolf, because while its sub-Saharan flavours are indeed enigmatic and richly rendered by the 48-year-old's somersaulting narration, some of the plot touchstones are immediately similar to those two aforementioned staples of dragons-and-derring-do. (Just at a glance, this sprawling saga boasts a mixed-bag fellowship on an elaborate mission, talk of a "mad king", and lots of ins-and-outs about lineage and legitimacy for a throne). If you spot such things, then you either know who Tom Bombadil is or you're very excited about a certain HBO series returning to the small screen in a few weeks' time. Possibly both.

For all that, you'd never confuse James's world with any other. This is an infinitely more treacherous dimension than either Middle Earth or Westeros to be plonked in for just shy of 650 pages, and in the case of the latter, that's saying something. In Tracker, James's protagonist, we have a teak-tough anti-hero whose deadly killing efficiency (outlined to us in the opening paragraphs of the epic) is matched only by his extraordinary sense of smell ("It is said you have a nose," is how his reputation demands new acquaintances to greet him). The two qualities mean that he is particularly adept at finding people, both those who have been taken or those who don't want to be found. These range from adultering husbands to stolen children. In the latter category, it is a missing boy who becomes the axis of Tracker's journey as he and a band of fellow mercenaries (made up warriors, witches and beasts) are charged with locating his whereabouts.

Smell, therefore, is a leading sensation in the tale, and given that death and cruelty are never far, there is a constant whiff of pestilence, bodily excreta and general lewd biology about the place. Delicate eyes should probably also take heed of strong sexual violence to women and children and throbbing homoerotic interludes, that, while not objectionable in their own right, seem forced into the fold.

Tracker is the wolf of the title, stemming from the loss of an eye (one of countless unspeakably gruesome passages to look forward to here) that befalls him before a replacement sourced from a wolf provides some added potency to his sight. The leopard, meanwhile, is a fellow hired ranger with whom an uneasy on-off alliance (there really is no other kind in the novel) persists. He is a shape-shifter, able to transform from man to cat (both alluringly wretched-smelling, of course) and back again.

A thrilling opening that throbs with danger and dread brings us right up to speed on the portal we've entered, and the kaleidoscopic violence that is about to begin stalking us. The final passages, equally, seem to burst open with something cathartic and overheated, which you almost think is impossible given what has transpired in the interim.

And it is this in the expansive interim that things become unmoored. James has said that he wants the reader to get a bit lost in the layers of storytelling taking place with a view to bringing us back around to terra firma eventually. But there are whole swathes of this to endure which can make this middle bulk hard work. Battles explode without much forewarning or context. The magical conspiracy underlining Tracker's quest becomes increasingly knotted as characters bicker and bosh one another.

James's canny way with a sentence and his sustained register of primal, hallucinatory barbarism are striking weaponry to behold but only when they are directed at a tangible horizon point. Hopefully this is just scene-setting for slightly more linear storytelling in books two and three.

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