If you’re at all plugged in to the book world then you’ve been hearing about Marlon James’ newest novel, Black Leopard Red Wolf (out Tuesday), for months now. The author embodies the top of today’s literary hierarchy: He’s won the Man Booker prize (for 2015’s A Brief History of Seven Killings), and is also a frequent name on the New York Times bestseller list. But the fantasy tome — which is set to be the first of the aptly-named Dark Star Trilogy — is a notable departure from his previous work.
Black Leopard has been described by many as the “African Game of Thrones,” and while that may be accurate, it’s also not quite comprehensive enough. It follows Tracker, a sort of mercenary-meets-bounty-hunter, on the hunt for a missing boy, who meets a few hundred characters along the way. (For the record, the official EW party line is that the book is Game of Thrones plus Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows plus the sex scenes from True Blood.) It’s James’ first foray into the fantasy world, professionally-speaking, but he’s no newbie to the genre.
“In some ways [this book] was me reconnecting with why I read in the first place,” he tells EW. “The first things I read were comics and fables and fantasy, for a lot of reasons including boredom. I grew up in the suburbs! When I was reading X-Men, those were the first people I ever identified with — I was used to being the outcast or the weirdo and that really resonated with me.”
The novel sets up the three-part series, but the major difference between The Dark Star and its trilogy predecessors is that each installment will tell the same story. James came to this idea during a discussion with filmmaker Melina Matsoukas — she’s currently attached to direct and produce the Amazon Studios-led adaptation of A Brief History of Seven Killings, which has been optioned, and at the time was in the middle of directing Insecure. The author had been researching Black Leopard for two years and was looking for advice on how to get into the story and Matsoukas brought up Showtime’s The Affair.
“There are two different points of view between the man and the woman, and things were so different that even the skirt lengths were different,” James says. “Melina mentioned what a good idea that was for a TV show and I’m like, ‘Forget TV, that’s a novel!’ I suddenly knew what this trilogy was: It was three different witnesses telling the same story.”
James may now have a game plan for his next two books, but that doesn’t mean the details are set. He emphasized that he’s constantly surprised by the direction his plots take and the decisions his characters make.
“God Bless Breaking Bad, but I never know how anything is going to end,” he laughs. “For me, a good writing day is when, at the end of it, I can say ‘I didn’t see that coming.'”
Much like The Affair, readers can expect the ensuing two novels in the trilogy to further complicate the story set out in Black Leopard, rather than wrap up the plot in a bow. Distorting the truth is a time-honored literary tradition (just look to Lauren Groff’s National Book Award finalist Fates and Furies), but James knows it may prove less than satisfying for those of us who have been trained to demand answers and solutions. He likens the forthcoming narrative to the aftermath of a family reunion — you can have eight people in the same room experiencing the same thing, but with eight different opinions about what happened.
“In the West we still have this thing about truth: This is authentic storytelling, this is the story you should believe, and so on,” he explains. “But now, truth becomes the reader’s job. [They ask] which are the versions I should believe? And I’m like, I’m not telling you! You can believe any one you want.”
For more from Marlon James, check out his interview on Shelf Life on EW Radio.