The story kernel at the center of “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” Marlon James’s surreal new fantasy epic, concerns the search for a missing boy. A hunter named Tracker, who is famous for his nose — “for finding what would rather stay lost” — is hired to find the lost child, who may or may not be the rightful heir to the throne of an ancient African empire. Tracker soon realizes that he is only one of many hired to find the boy — or proof of his death.
The search for the boy, it turns out, is a giant MacGuffin: The very first sentence of the novel informs us that the child is dead, and James uses the search as an armature on which to hang dozens of other tales, much the way he used the story of an assassination attempt on Bob Marley in his award-winning 2014 novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings” as scaffolding to create a tangled, choral portrait of Jamaica and its relationship with the United States.
In these pages, James conjures the literary equivalent of a Marvel Comics universe — filled with dizzying, magpie references to old movies and recent TV, ancient myths and classic comic books, and fused into something new and startling by his gifts for language and sheer inventiveness.
The fictional Africa in “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” feels like a place mapped by Gabriel García Márquez and Hieronymus Bosch with an assist from Salvador Dalí. It’s a magical, sometimes beautiful place, but also a place filled with malicious vampires, demons, witches and necromancers, given to murder, cannibalism and the hurling of evil spells. The action is often gut-wrenchingly violent — part “Blood Meridian,” part “Deadpool,” part “Game of Thrones.” Innocents are slaughtered in showdowns between rival groups. Curses and dark prophecies multiply. Hearts and eyeballs are bloodily plucked out.
Metamorphosis — of the sort made famous by both Ovid and Stan Lee — is one of the novel’s central themes. There’s Tracker’s passage into manhood through a series of harrowing adventures; and his love-hate relationship with the Leopard, a charismatic being who can incarnate himself as both an animal and a man. Tracker also has a series of alarming encounters with shape-shifting creatures who may be adversaries or allies or both — including Sasabonsam, a menacing batlike creature who may have kidnapped the missing boy; and Nyka, a mercenary and former friend who once committed a terrible act of betrayal.
How did these characters reach these particular crossroads? Whom can Tracker trust, and can the reader trust Tracker — or is he as unreliable a narrator as the rivals and relatives who offer conflicting story lines, suggesting that truth is “a shifting, slithering thing”? Is his father really his grandfather, as his uncle asserts? Will he avenge himself on the men who killed his brother and father? Will his love for a group of orphaned, misfit children replace the anger in his heart and give him a sense of purpose? Why does Tracker hide his real feelings about the Leopard? And why does the Leopard tell him to “learn not to need people”? Such questions are not entirely answered in this volume — which is only the first installment of what James is calling his “Dark Star” trilogy.
In keeping with familiar fantasy and sci-fi templates (from Harry Potter to “The Matrix” to “The Lion King”), the plot of “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” retraces many of the steps that the scholar Joseph Campbell described as stages in the archetypal hero’s journey. Like Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars” and Frodo in “The Lord of the Rings,” Tracker sets off on a journey that will take him away from home — to distant lands and kingdoms, where he faces a series of dangerous tests. And like many a comic-book superhero and antihero before him, Tracker grapples painfully with his own identity, even as he fights off a succession of opponents who threaten to thwart his mission. Along the way, as his path converges with that of others looking for the missing boy, Tracker becomes part of a motley group of mercenaries and misfits who squabble noisily and violently among themselves — and who bear more than a passing resemblance to the sorts of ragtag teams of rivals assembled in movies like “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Avengers” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
There are allusions in “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” not just to countless Marvel series and characters (like the Black Panther, Deadpool and Wolverine), but also to myriad literary works including Octavia E. Butler’s sci-fi classic “Wild Seed,” Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber,” Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses,” Tolkien’s Middle-earth novels, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books, Jung’s writings on archetypes and the collective unconscious and African epics about trickster and shape-shifting characters who symbolize chaos and change.
James is such a nimble and fluent writer that such references never threaten to devolve into pretentious postmodern exercises. Even when he is nestling one tale within another like Russian dolls that underscore the provisional nature of storytelling (and the Rashomon-like ways in which we remember), he is giving us a gripping, action-packed narrative. What the novel could have used is a little judicious pruning: As in superhero movies, the action sometimes assumes a predictable, episodic rhythm — one violent, bravura showdown after another, strung together by interludes of travel and efforts to regroup and connect the dots.
What propels the novel forward is the same thing that fuels the best superhero movies and comic books: the origin stories of its central characters. We read to find out how Tracker became the Red Wolf and how the Leopard became the Leopard. In their beginnings are their ends: the keys to their strengths and vulnerabilities, the source of their drive and ambitions and fears, and clues to the larger goals that endow their quests for self-knowledge with some larger sense of mission.
With Tracker and the Leopard, James has created two compelling and iconic characters — characters who will take their place in the pantheon of memorable and fantastical superheroes.