Back to Africa

A long-forgotten reviewer characterized a novel I loved as “a 5th century China that never was but should have been.”

I feel similarly about Marlon JamesBlack Leopard Red Wolf, a blazing novel about an ancient Africa that never (so far as we know) existed but does now.

I have heard this novel described as the African Game of Thrones, but the novel it brings to my mind is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. Yes, it involves a search for the “true king,” but there is where the resemblance to George R.R. Martin’s epic ends. James goes deep into his imagined Africa, bringing the nightmare figures of folklore to bear on a quest that could determine the future of this ancient cradle of mankind.

As Laura Miller writes in her excellent review for Slate:

[Our hero] Tracker’s voice—wounded, furious, disillusioned, impassioned, implacable—carries the reader through Black Leopard, Red Wolf like a riptide. Truth be told, the plot itself, although liberally salted with spectacular chase and fight scenes, unfolds at a leisurely pace. Furthermore, James molds the novel’s diction to African grammatical structures not always easy to follow: “In everything, learning is to take from where you be to where you like to go.” Both of these qualities impede the speedy consumption of pages that readers expect from genre fiction, but ultimately they are what makes Black Leopard, Red Wolf so satisfying. The novel reshapes the way you read it as you go along. Like all epic fantasy, it builds a world out of words, and the way those words fit together is part of the distinctive architecture of that world.

I was drawn to the book as a lover of fantasy fiction and curiosity for how that genre would play out using other mythic figures than those we know so well from European lore. Barry Hughart and Guy Gabriel Kay have done it well for ancient China, Marquez and others for South America. Now James has done it for Africa, the mother of us all.