Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Game of Thrones, and the Modern Fantasy Canon

Abe Beame goes in on the fantasy genre.
By    March 13, 2019

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Abe Beame encourages you to read the books.

I’ve always had some sense that as cultures, nations and people our myths explain our identity, but the first time I can remember fully absorbing the idea was a viewing of the film Hero, Zang Yimou’s Chinese folk tale that doubles as a creation myth for the country. The beautiful, unreliably narrated film follows beats familiar to anyone raised in the wake of Star Wars. Four great heroes join forces to oppose an emperor who has a tyrannical design to unite a nation under his sword. I naturally rooted for the uprising, the pure-of-heart heroes opposed to a ruthless despot. And indeed, this is what the film intends, before subverting our classic conception of power in the final act. The ostensible heroes see the wisdom in the unification of the land and lay down their swords in the interest of nation building. It helped me understand the stories nations likes to tell themselves about who they are and how they became that way.

As Americans we have been conditioned to understand black and white power dynamics, that good and evil are absolutes and generally run in one direction. Even as we are accurately understood by the rest of the world as demonic, hegemonic destroyers, many view ourselves as scrappy underdogs. It’s reflected in our folk tales, our Disney films, and the popular understanding of our foundational conflicts like the Revolutionary War. We were instituted on the principal that what we believe is our business, that you can take your taxes and shove them up your ass. You won’t tread on me or take my guns. Just as Tolkien, writing through two World Wars in opposition to ruthless dictators, and in the wake of an industrial revolution, displayed a healthy protectionist environmentalism and skepticism towards the absolute power of Totalitarianism in his mythos, much of American mythology before Star Wars was wrapped up in rugged individualism, the opposition of tyranny, self sufficiency and messiah complexes. George Lucas just consecrated it.

Enter Jamaican born and raised Marlon James. James is a recently minted literary star. When his sophomore novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings won the Booker Prize, James vaulted to the pinnacle of fiction, joining luminaries such as James McBride, Paul Beatty, Hilton Als, Colson Whitehead and Tah-Nehesi Coates as the most influential young black male writers on Earth. It would be plausible and probable for James to have followed up his award winner with another “serious” work of literature. Perhaps something historical and sprawling, or intimate and character based, but planted in the world of literary fiction. The novel James produced instead is certainly literary, but also as egalitarian and game changing as any “serious” novel produced by a “serious” author this century.

That novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, is the first installment of what is to be James’ Dark Star fantasy trilogy. As James once infamously elevator pitched it, “an African Game of Thrones”. The comparison is at once apt and misleading. On one hand it’s a work of historical fiction rooted in a world of fantasy and mythology. It is informed by and commenting on modernity and universal humanity, it is a vividly imagined world with an enormous cast of characters all subject to their author’s inventive imagination. It’s about palace intrigue and warring factions and united factions with competing agendas. But the series aspires to achieve different goals.

The seeds for the novel were planted when James looked at the announced cast for Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit with despair. The Hobbit was one of his favorite novels and he’d grown tired of the lily white absence of representation in the fantasy worlds the nerd loved to escape to as a young man. But James did much more than write a story about black elves, dwarves and hobbits. With this novel, he makes a passionate case for why representation is so vital in giving us different perspectives on the ancient stories we tell. It’s specifically rooted in fantasy here but as a case study it’s open to universal application in how diverse voices can impact the structure of genre. It’s an important book, if not always a great one.

While Thrones pulls from Feudal European history and mythology, BLRW is rooted firmly in the history and folklore of tribal Africa. The Thrones universe of Westeros and Essos is brilliantly sketched, but much of the fantastical elements are familiar. There’s magical assassins and alchemists and enchantresses, and of course, dragons and zombies. It’s essentially a game of Dungeons and Dragons brought to life and set against an epic struggle for power. James has responded with something truly original, a dense mythological realm populated by a twisted Henson’s studio of creatures who climbed out of the nightmares of children raised in African folklore; mythical beasts and mutants and shamen and shapeshifters that aren’t as firmly rooted in our Western oriented fictional traditions. The way this unfamiliar magic permeates every facet of the worldbuilding makes for a new type of fantasy explore.

Then there’s the storytelling itself. James has not compromised one ounce of himself as a writer to deliver a popular work of fiction. His idea of GoT is very different from Martin’s and at times it can leave a reader stranded trying to untangle his intricate web of plots or even to fully comprehend basic details of who is speaking, what the hell is happening from moment to moment and where the story is heading on a macro level. Martin’s love for dialogue is much like James’ love for dialect. Almost every character from village to city has a distinct patois with its own music, as was the case in Seven Killings.

There isn’t the same velocity, or at times even the bare minimum of momentum to James’ much slimmer work when it slows down between set pieces. He’s clearly one of the best writers that have ever engaged in this medium, but he’s far from the best storyteller. Reading James’ take on the form gives you appreciation for Martin’s rare and special talent. This writer, with all his poetry and brilliance, can’t quite meet the incredible level of structure this genre requires.

It’s little shit. You appreciate how immediately distinct and identifiable Martin’s separate lands are in what could easily be a labyrinthine, impenetrable world. Like Mega Man levels, there’s the sea people, the sky kingdoms, the frozen north, the tropical south, the desert horse riders, each realm and its people has the instantly recognizable characteristics and sticky hooks a gigantic work of genre requires.

James takes stabs at this level of characterization but his imagination works against him. As a thinker and a writer James is almost too granular and tactile, the personalities too weird and specific. The inability to ignore his MFA-trained demand for detail works against the format he’s dabbling in. Fantasy trades on the cliche and archetype, you can conform or subvert as you like in this post modern age of genre but for a writer like James it’s more slippery than all that. There’s simply no governor. He wants to ground the irregularity of literature into the confines of fantasy. Martin is a master subverter. James is so radical he seems to at times reject the entire structure.

The differences in the telling go beyond voice. The POV of the first installment in the series is first person, told exclusively by the Wolf, or the Tracker as he is known. Fittingly, it’s an oral history, our narrator is a griot telling his story in the aftermath of adventure to his inquisitor. We are warned, throughout the novel and with James’ last words, not to trust his narrator. It seems like something of a rebuttal against Martin and the 360 perspective we are given of his rendered Earth through the multiple first person narratives strewn all over the lands that make up GoT.

The history of Western culture has been told in authoritative tomes written in ivory towers by the victors. GoT has this same quality, it’s told from the characters’ perspectives but not in their voice. They are reliable and Martin is their omniscient, godlike scribe. James seems to be making a commentary on the impossibility of this definitive style of storytelling.. The structure James has settled on for the telling of this trilogy will be three people, telling their story of the same event from three different perspectives. It’s a fascinating and necessary thought experiment refuting institutional absolutism.

As a result of this perspective, at least for now, BLRW is a smaller mythology. We are not looking at a giant Risk board but following adventures within this world that contains dense and unseen architecture. Much of the novel is noir, with The Tracker as Marlowe pursuing its mystery of a missing boy. The animating action of GoT is regime change. It has a tantalizing chocolate center baked into its thousands and thousands of pages of fantasy adventure: who will reside on the throne when the dust clears? The throne is its ring of power, a definitive means to an end, a world deciding struggle. There are layers of complications and clear red herrings in other lands but we never take our eyes off that finish line. Here, at least so far, despite a map and cast of characters, the grasp of totality in the imagined realm is never quite as firm. BLRW is pure Chinatown, a weird and specific yarn that demands you unspool.

Representation in BLRW isn’t limited to blackness. Most, if not all of the characters are on the spectrum of LBGTQ, as James is. It’s not just queer for a fantasy novel, or a Marvel franchise, or any of the mainstream fictional structures it’s been aligned with. BLRW is an incredibly horny book that often veers into eroticism far beyond mainstream norms. There is a troubling penchant for man/boy love, a character is brain washed with hypnotizing lube inserted rectally in the midst of the act of love making, our narrator is gang raped by a crew of magical well endowed male and female hyenas. There is at least a GoT level of sex throughout and I’m straining to remember a heterosexual act. In the very first chapter the Tracker prostitutes himself to what is described as something like a 100 year old witch who promises him a gift of magic, but that’s about it. Such a transgressive decision nestled into characters in a novel that is being packaged and optioned as a major fantasy franchise is yet another of the James’ radical acts. It’s evolution in real time.

From the beginning, GoT has been a story about the pettiness of man. How our clannishness, our envy, our selfishness blinds us to the existential threats that lie just on the other side of our nearsighted desires. The story has always promoted a Darwinian sorting that advances cunning and deceit over moral fiber, and rather than openly judging these bad actors for their evil, there’s a kind of at least temporal logic that commends them for understanding human nature and how to manipulate the rules of the game. It’s a deeply cynical take, and the reason why I believe the only rational way to end the story when the show concludes in several weeks, that honors Martin’s vision and the logic he’s meticulously constructed, is a triumph of the White Walkers. It would be a realization of Martin’s warning of the urgent peril of our humanity that exposes us to extinction since the epic began.

At least for now, Black Leopard, Red Wolf appears to be a story about the anachronistic brutality of the old world. Of rotten institutions falling away and being replaced with modernity and acceptance. At the outset of the novel, the Tracker is embroiled in an outmoded way of thought, the ancient religion and tribalism that has resulted in eternal death feuds between two rival clans. It killed his father and brother, orphaning him to what he believes is the shame of being raised by his cowardly grandfather. His village follows practices such as segregation of caste, ritual sacrifice, human bondage, homophobia and female circumcision.

The Leopard comes to the rescue and plays Yoda to the Tracker’s Luke. He teaches him to fight, takes the scales away from his eyes in the ways he views his soul, his universe, his sexuality and his society. The Leopard draws the Tracker into joining him in the de facto guardianship of a group of children referred to as Mingi, children society views as troubled or deformed. Some are mutant-like X-Men, though some suffer from nothing more than the wrong pair of teeth growing in first. In this the village is ableist, an ancient form of superstition-based Eugenicists. Tracker becomes something of a woke voyeur, recoiling in horror from this society’s barbarism. His actual name has been withheld or forgotten. It’s his past, his family, his people, the ancestral home that he has left behind him.

The characters that populate the novel embrace fluidity but society often moves against it. In BLRW the enemy is not Lannister or Slytherin or White Walker but the ignorance of orthodoxy and wanton malice. “This child, this boy, has something to do with what is right in this world.” This refers to the book’s central macguffin, a boy from noble blood and his claim to a throne held by a corrupt king. The novel breaks down along this dichotomy of moral absolutism, James has an easier time casting roles of good and evil. Whereas in GoT power is its own clarifying force.

In Game of Thrones, some men and women are good and some evil but their lease on life is only as firm as how adept they are at playing the game, with certain exceptions such as dragon ownership and the ability to rise from the dead. Martin muddies the neat beats of heroic morality and villainous treachery by making his monsters occasionally sympathetic, and tying the easy black and white world view of his upstanding heroes in knots. This isn’t to say BLRW is a childish or optimistic book. It’s graphic and brutal, at times bordering on horror and seemingly locked in a game of brinksmanship with the violence of GoT and its offspring, but it has a warmer, moral heart at its center. You can feel dismay at the ancient institutions James relays while Martin will report on them matter of factly. James is prescriptive in his message. He offers a way forward, one grounded in identity, love and acceptance in diversity. GoT is a book of deeply pessimistic nihilism.  BLRW is one of big hearted hope, and possible naiveté.

But the two series differ in one final, crucial, massively important sense. At least for now, that dream of promise and salvation, the triumph of modernity and morality, the change in rule the missing boy represents, fails tragically at the conclusion of the first installment. And there lies potential for telling a new type of fantasy epic.  At the very end of Black Leopard, Red Wolf an allusion is made to the end of a way of life, the encroaching menace of occupation and slavery by white monsters from the west, and in this perhaps we make the turn. Much like in Hero, the king, presented throughout the novel as mad and evil, is attempting to unify all the kingdoms in James’ mythical Africa under one unified banner, the only kingdom that can stand up to the apocalypse coming from an ocean away. And perhaps this is the mythology any modern African myth has to contend with. A story of doom and disrepair that GoT almost certainly will not have the courage to tell.

It is said that history is written by the winners. The cannon of fantasy we’ve seen over the last several hundred years in Western civilization carries this logical taint of triumph. Good almost always triumphs over evil, and as the conquerors why should imperial nations imagine their fairy tales ending in any other manner? James set out to write a fantasy novel that achieved representation and he accomplished this in spades with his very bleak, unique take on fantasy. With at least this first installment in his trilogy, he didn’t rehash the stories of unlikely heroes destined for greatness and mythic queens, the righting of wrongs and usurping of evil kings. He presented a mythology that gives voice to the other side of history, he’s injected a fatalism that can only come from a perspective that doesn’t end in victory. This is why representation in voice is ultimately so important. It presents diversity in the way we view our worlds, real and imagined.

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