Marlon James’s much-anticipated fourth novel “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” hits the bookstore shelves today. “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” is the first installment in the Dark Star trilogy, which he undertook to create, in his words, an “African Game of Thrones.” Wrought with fantasy drawn from his studies of mythology — especially African mythology, but also the mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien — the book follows Tracker, the non-binary and pansexual protagonist who is hired to search for a missing boy.
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Tracker journeys through a fantastical realm full of “court intrigue, monsters, magic,” which James has endeavored with this trilogy to reclaim from a whitewashed fantasy genre. “I wanted black pageantry,” the Jamaican-born author told the New Yorker. From his vantage as an award-winning critical darling, he also wanted to write this trilogy to chip away at the idea that fantasy lit and fine lit are mutually exclusive genres.
James’s third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, won the Man Booker Prize in 2015. The work was a fictionalized account of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, fully immersing its readers in the Jamaica of the ‘70s: its politics, chaos, gang wars and the national orbit around Bob Marley as a god.
Though this is James’ first major work in the fantasy genre, perhaps surprising to some of his readers, a review in the Los Angeles Times likened “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” to his last novel in the way that both books examine “oppression, power structures, and the individual’s place in an often cruel and unfeeling world.
Representation Not a Fantasy Anymore
In an interview with Vanity Fair, as a huge fan of all things geek, James spoke of how significant it was for him to see characters like Lando Calrissian and Storm. He longed for more black characters like them in the literature he loved. “If you’re going to be a fan of fantasy, you have to come to terms with the fact that 99 percent of it is European — particularly when I was growing up. But you read a cool story and you’re like, ‘Yeah, O.K. Well, could there be just one person like me in this thing?’”
As fantasy and sci-fi genres steadily assert their presence and relevance in mainstream pop culture, fans who have been hungry for representation are finally seeing their dreams play out on the big screen — though, not without pushback from a base of fans who lose their shit over things like black men being cast as Stormtroopers.
— Late Night with Seth Meyers (@LateNightSeth) February 8, 2019
Actor John Boyega, who played Finn the defecting Stormtrooper, summarily dismissed these complaints on Twitter in 2014: “Get used to it. :)” The same base put up a fuss over the fact that actor Diego Luna was cast as Cassian in Rogue One, perturbed by the fact that there was a guy flying around the Star Wars galaxy with a Mexican accent (as if literal alien languages were more reasonable and acceptable). Star Trek: Discovery, helmed by actress Michelle Yeoh, also has received similar flak from purist racist fans for her Chinese-Malaysian accent.
The sales and viewership for these programs don’t lie though. Remember Black Panther, which raked in over $1 billion in sales? Representation sells, even in sci-fi and fantasy, and it’s here to stay.