The first thing Marlon James’s new novel does to readers is confuse them. That is an intended effect, and he succeeds: the diction is choppy but enigmatic, the secrets are revealed (if at all) only several chapters after their first mention, and the conversations are like little battles fought with sentences. Black Leopard, Red Wolf comes at you angrily, overwhelmingly so, and you’re thrown in pell-mell with nary a hand-hold. But with a little trust, a little patience, James’s actual vision soon starts unfolding, and it is genuinely a lot of fun to behold.

While the central conceit of the plot is one that will be instantly recognisable to dedicated readers of the genre (the journey is where it’s at, no matter the so-called point of it all), this is still not your granddad’s epic fantasy. While it does have a more or less standard quest, and your regular set of outliers and anomalies banding together for what they suspect is a common good, that’s basically where all resemblances end.

Nothing comforting about it

James seems to set out with the primary intention of developing a very different flavour from that of an epic fantasy in the vein that Tolkien has often afforded us. Gone is the comfort, the consolation and the certainty of a plush narrative with which to curl up and surrender yourself to trustingly. Instead, what you have is a vast, bloody tapestry chock full of mythological creatures far more sinister than your average dragon, described in a language that requires your complete and undivided attention.

Take for instance, the “lightning bird”. The Ipundulu is a vampiric being who kills its victims and injects them with a kind of mad, animating energy, itself acting as a lightning rod for zombies. There’s the Chipfalambula, a hungry fish-like creature who will give you boat rides without ingesting you – if you know how to ask nicely. Or, for that matter, let’s consider Sadogo (sure to be a favourite with readers), a giant who’s not really a giant, being somewhere in between a human and a hulking, slow and passive-aggressive ogre. He has as immense an appetite for destruction as he does for rumination and self-pity.

There are also trolls, bush fairies, mad apes, and a whole panoply of familiar colourful beings who are nevertheless a far cry from your typical fantasy fare. Much of the fun is figuring out exactly where they differ from those conventions. The tropes will be instantly recognisable, but to readers firmly entrenched in Western myth and imagery, they are deliciously different, and quite unapologetic in their capacity to provoke.

World-building together

The plot itself surrounds the enigmatic Tracker, who begins his story with patricide and plunges himself into a violent odyssey of self-discovery. He is soon hired by a slaver to find a boy who is of dangerous significance to the war between the Northern and the Southern Kingdoms (for a reason revealed gradually over the course of the novel). Accompanying him in his quest are, among others, a water goddess, a shapeshifting Leopard, a witch, a giant who is not a giant, and even a very friendly Buffalo. There is a playfulness and an energy in the casting that compels you to treat it like the adventure that it is, but the style keeps you from having too much fun, forcing you to think for your pleasures.

For what’s immediately distinct and distinguished about James’s novel is his particular use of language. Here’s a conversation between Sogolon the witch, and Tracker:

“‘Low-wit donkey, the man was not my master, he was my kidnapper. A man would know the difference.’

‘You could have run to a prefect.’

‘A man.’

‘A magistrate.’

‘A man.’

‘An elder with a kind ear, an inquisitor, a seer.’

‘Man. Man. Man.’

‘Justice could have come for your kidnapper.’

‘Justice did come. When I learn a spell and the wife pregnancy devour her from the inside. Something else go up in the man.’

‘A spell.’

‘My knife.’”

Almost every exchange in the novel takes the form of such a snappy back and forth, sometimes witty, sometimes dripping with scorn and vitriol. Admittedly, this does get a bit tiring after a point, but some of the most crucial information is interspersed within such banter, making it something you cannot skim through. For instance, as the attentive reader might guess from above, much of Sogolon’s motivations as a character is revealed through her vociferous opinions on patriarchal systems, which is one of the running themes through the novel as well.

There is also a musicality and rhythm to the rest of the narrative that almost demands that you take it one sentence at a time, and even read it out loud. This is decidedly a different approach compared to more traditional fantasy fare, which often spends a large amount of energy on careful but ultimately dull description. Instead, James almost demands that his readers co-create the fictional landscape with him as they read, in an act of collaboration.

That’s not to say though that the book doesn’t offer the more traditional joys of world-building. The following passage describes the kingdom of Dolingo, and it’s breathtaking in scope and detail:

“Dolingo. These were not great rocks, even though they were as wide as mountains – a thousand, six thousand, maybe even ten thousand paces all around – but the trunks of trees with little branches sprouting low. Trees as tall as the world itself. At first, looking up, all I could see were lights and ropes, something reaching taller than the clouds. We came upon a clearing wide as a battlefield, enough for me to see two of them. The first spread as far as a field; the second, smaller. Both trunks rose through clouds and beyond.”

Tragedy meets spectacle

Something very few reviews have remarked upon is James’s wondrous descriptions of animals in the book. He seems to have a genuine fondness for animal life, and it shows in his careful depiction of their majestic and often playful natures. The “very smart” Buffalo who joins the “fellowship” somewhere along the quest, hilariously grunts his way through conversations while acquiescing to requests in a very self-possessed way.

The Leopard, Tracker’s “best friend” and companion, is a shapeshifter who seems to prefer being a big cat, but is quite paternal in his love for Tracker. Their friendship, as has been pointed out by several critics, often forms the cornerstone of the plot, but is rendered more beautiful than it could have been thanks to the unique interpersonal dynamic between man and beast.

James’s greatest achievement, however, is how the novel is at one and the same time a deeply personal tragedy as well as a large-scale spectacle. It is in this careful juggling of two very different priorities that James ultimately sets his novel apart. It is a tense tightrope act, especially since the author so clearly loves his source material and would much rather geek out every step of the way. But everything here, however seemingly disheveled and shaggy, is by design.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf exudes the allure and excitement of something very new and unabashedly confident. It takes mythic tropes that are distinctly African and goes to town with them. A lot of Western storytelling, for all its postmodern trickery, still betrays an obsession with order and linearity, while steering clear of sheer imagination, whimsy and illogic. James laughs in the face of such insecurities while never giving up on the readerly pleasures of seeing a finely crafted story take shape and blossom. His novel is all the better for such fearlessness.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Marlon James, Hamish Hamilton.