I was going to write about Game of Thrones, as promised, but I don’t want to. Fatigue has drained me of commentary. If I see Dinklage’s beard and pained eyes again, I could crack. If one more piece of YouTube scholarship emerges on season eight, I will head to the woods and bury myself. We each have our opinions on the end fully manifest by now. To add more to the funeral pyre seems silly, whereas I’d rather discuss what we could move onto: the potential genesis of another fantasy phenomenon. Thrones is dead. Long live a new king, with darker skin.
As Jon Snow stabbed Daenerys with forty minutes of TV left for the clean-up, I couldn’t help but imagine a newer, messier thrill for the audience this show has created – people who like fantasy but much prefer characters in rooms, talking, being petty to one another, and maybe dishing a magical surprise every third episode. It took a while to get here, but we’re ready for other stories that rage against stereotypes, borders, the quicksand of genre that some people can’t move past. And there are still borders to cross. I think I’ve found the novel that could do it, should producers choose to write a cheque and list me as ‘consultant’ with honorary Greek yoghurt in the HBO guest hotel.
It’s called Black Leopard, Red Wolf. In fine hands, the book might stir a sensation in television, befitting of and expanding fantasy’s cultural cache. Black Leopard, Red Wolf could do two things – raise the stakes in slow-burn psychological realism, and upturn the whiteness of a semi-medieval cliché, putting familiar trials in a fresh context.
It’s about the quest to find a boy. But as the opening lines in the book tell us, we should “smile at such tidings and dance at such a loss,” because he is dead. This is from the mouth of Tracker, a man who was after him. It’s an interrogation. Tracker was born into a lie, and he’s hard to believe.
But he lives on a mythic continent, an almost-Africa with witches, leopard men, lands with names like Kalindar and Luala Luala. A place where trolls chase you on the savannah. Where babies are sold at market. Sun and predation and assassins. A pair of kingdoms. Jungle, swamp, field and forest. Where survival is a daily diligent taking of everything you can get.
Tracker is a lead character, but only this time around. Marlon James, Black Leopard’s author, is writing two more. It’ll be the same story split three ways. Yet I’m amazed he’s done any of it; James is known for his literary ambition, and his sentences, rather than brisk plotting with wildfire. A Brief History of Seven Killings, his 2015 novel, sought to confront the failed shooting of Bob Marley, whilst debut John Crow’s Devil put a town in the sway of two preachers in 50s Jamaica. Nevertheless, his work is brutal. Everywhere you turn in James, the world shanks you, and you carry on till it’s briefly tender. No gains are free of cost. Sex and wit get you far, but only till they run out. Eventually characters face a do-or-death battle with a merciless force, the kind that fantasy is built for.
There’s actually a scene in this, the first part of the Dark Star trilogy, that made me put the book down and rub my eye for a second, check it was still there. I haven’t read much like that. Burroughs and Carter can make me squeamish, but not like that. Game of Thrones depicted rape, cannibalism and incest, yet James’ content doubles down on those taboos, which would be a new litmus for TV. It could be lessened and lose none of its impact. Some readers have found these scenes wearying, although in almost every case, they add to the story. Trauma fosters an awareness of change, of what characters can avenge and exist with. As Tracker remembers of an old friend, “I was ready to say this feels like something from boy lovers in the East until I felt myself go soft in his arms, weak, so weak I barely hugged back. I felt like crying, like a boy, and nodded the feeling out of me.”
Happiness is a precious commodity, which isn’t to say that Black Leopard, Red Wolf has no jokes. Tracker’s got plenty. He’s dry enough to win battles before showing his hatchet. So we invest, and see goodness where it flowers, and wait for the next brawl that comes out of nowhere in huts, in towers, folds of tall grass. The boy they are questing for may be dead, but the band of killers and magicians that accompanies them is dead also, or torn apart by some mad ending. The other two books will elaborate with their own narrators. I’m only a third of the way through this one.
The author, however, wants us to be critical of who is telling what story. He told the New York Times that he’d listen to his grandfather tell the same tale four times in four days. Every time, it’d be different. “Foundational folktales of the African epics,” he said on the NYT podcast, “are quite similar to the Norse sagas, in the sense that they are very primal, they are told aloud, and they go back to a pre-Christian and pre-Muslim kind of world. The gods are fantastic, but they’re also a kind of a pain in the butt.”
That keeps the fickle nature of Thrones intact without being too familiar. The creatures, cities and relationships are unique. There’s no Big Storyline putting everything at stake. Politics motivate the quest but don’t overtake it. More prominent is the question of crimes, or failures, and how they implicate those on the fringe of a tough universe, unlatched from a place to call home.
Wouldn’t it be cool to see a True Detective style framing device for fantasy? To watch three central perspectives edge around the truth, remembering how they fought and fucked? Oh yeah – that show would be dripping with sex. Leopards aren’t the only changelings; pretty much everyone crosses from child to adult, man to woman, river spirit to floor puddle. It’s revolutionary compared to much of G.R.R. Martins’ feudal social conscriptions where marriage is valued and straightness is the ideal. A TV version would seem timely and wonderful, like the book, in our wider grappling of gender today, what someone can and can’t be without shame. There’d be blood, for sure. The ideas would be just as red in tooth and claw, though. And the slower pacing would be nice, quite a gear shift from the EPICNESS that made Game of Thrones increasingly predictable.
In short, read Black Leopard. Think about it. Then begin the hope petition. A film won’t be enough – just one season could blow minds and have the blogsphere roaring.