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Four One One

A breathtaking saga in the ‘African Game of Thrones’

African Game of Thrones

Jamaica-born author Marlon James weaves a stupendous African fantasy story in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first of three books in the Dark Star Trilogy.

It revolves around the adventures of a 19-year-old man somewhere in Africa who goes only by the name of Tracker. Tracker has a powerful sense of smell and, like a wolf, can take in hundreds of smells and “decide which scent my mind will follow.” His vocation becomes one of tracking down missing people, runaway wives and vanished children.

In the book, Tracker is narrating one of his adventures to a person known only as the Inquisitor. He recounts how he was hired to find a boy who disappeared three years prior, the only survivor of his murdered family.

Tracker knows little about the child but pieces together the enigmatic story during the expedition, the most dangerous has ever undertaken. Whispered reports link the boy to the royal family, to a great historical deception and banishment of the king’s sister to a mountaintop convent. Discovering the child would upend the future of the kingdom.

There is Leopard, a shape-shifting man who turns into a feline at will. Bunshi is an ancient sorceress with a penchant for divination runes and melting in and out of water puddles. Along comes a fierce swordsman called Mossi, the melancholic giant known as Sadogo, and a smart but irritable buffalo.

Many others come and go during the boy’s quest, often piggybacking on Tracker for self-serving agenda, peddling him half-truths and happy to terminate the wolf-nosed youth at the earliest opportunity. None of them shatter him like the disloyalty of his closest friend, Nyka, who betrays him to a pack of ravenous hyena-women hybrids.

Marlon James takes us through an epic world of kings and paupers, wizards and warring kingdoms, ghosts, griots and fantastical beings.

Spies, mercenaries and killer beasts pop up with astonishing regularity. Tracker chases the scent of an elusive child into villages, kingdoms, hamlets and city-states, through enchanted forests, Darklands and the “ten and nine doors”. Only by strength, guile and courage does he stay alive, and a protective spell cast over him by Sangoma, a necromancer he met early in the journey.

In between the action are flashbacks to Tracker’s childhood and his backstory. He is haunted in dreams by maddening enigmas and a group of mingi children he once befriended, offspring born with supernatural powers and abhorred by many.

A fearless and outspoken personality masks the loneliness and emotional turmoil he grapples with. He loved “to hunt deer and run and sport” but struggled with an attraction to men because, unlike other boys, the woman had not been cut out of him. Memories of his long-suffering mother plague him, and of being banished from home and discovering he is not the son of his father.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a tome running to a whopping 640 pages and mostly taking place over the course of a few months. The many places travelled and a cast of contradicting characters is mind-boggling, somewhat helped by the name index and maps.

The story charges furiously along and one can just about keep up with Tracker, the growing mysteries and never-ending escapades.

The novel is heavy with violence, lewdness and bloodied action, not a book for the fainthearted reader. Dramatic descriptions of battles, landscapes, street settings, vivid dreams, cultures and people draw the reader deep into James’ magical world.

Black Leopard feels authentically African in prose and content, a testament to incredible amounts of research and the author’s genius for storytelling. This spectacular saga gathers from a lot of African mythology, regions and history but mixed up. Littered all through are words and phrases from different African languages, including Kiswahili. You get the sense of being in West Africa, the Sahara, South Sudan, East and Southern Africa.

James, 52, became the first Jamaican to win the Man Booker Prize in 2015 for the novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings. It was around this time he reportedly joked that his next project would be an “African Game of Thrones.”

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