This review contains mild spoilers.
If anyone ever tells you that fantasy literature is a stale genre with tired tropes, direct them to two 2019 releases: Booker Prize winner Marlon James’ epic fantasy debut Black Leopard, Red Wolf and the latest novel from Canadian mythweaver (and U of T Law alum) Guy Gavriel Kay, titled A Brightness Long Ago. Both are risky, powerful narratives that think about history and storytelling, and are luminous additions to a modern fantasy environment of constant experimentation and improvement.
James’ Leopard is the first in his Dark Star trilogy, all set in a violent, hallucinatory world inspired by African myth. Each volume will explore the same circumstances from a different perspective, weaving a complicated Rashomom-style story-braid that speaks to how we tell stories with the limited information we have. Leopard is a prison confessional narrated by Tracker, a man who can find anyone (even the dead) for the right price. His is the story of a failed attempt by nine individuals to find a boy—but why anyone wants him found is a secret being kept from some in the group.
Meanwhile, Kay’s Brightness is set in the same world as his celebrated Sarantine Mosaic, twenty-something years before the events of Children of Earth and Sky, published in 2017. This is the sixth novel in this shared world built from real-world history; Brightness is a clear parallel to Renaissance Italy, a time of both celebrated art and bloody wars between city-states. It follows the lives of several characters, noble and common, against the backdrop of a feud between two great mercenary captains and the faraway siege of the glittering city of Sarantium, inspired by the Fall of Constantinople led by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1453 CE.
There is a lot that makes these novels atypical, beginning with style. James writes with a literary density of allusion that doesn’t often produce bestselling epics, and the action set-pieces that might deserve their own chapter in another book begin and conclude with barely enough time to be processed. It feels like an epic on steroids, or a tale told by a narrator who is partial to some parts over others—which indeed it is. There are dead-ends and half-truths and only a hint of a deeper story. In a similarly subversive fashion, Kay finds his characters meandering along arcs without the endings one might expect: We follow a healer’s nomadic journey across the world for a few years as her path intersects with other characters, only to have the rest of her life unspooled in a few paragraphs at the end, including her death. Kay has a reputation for changing tenses to heighten drama or make a point, but here his promiscuity extends to point-of-view, going from first to third and, in my favourite scene, second person, as the reader is invited to view the story from the omniscient authorial perspective.
These deviations from the norm can bring a level of discomfort or dissatisfaction to the reading experience. But the full power of these novels can only be felt by surrendering to what the authors have made. After all, there are enough well-worn fireside tales out there. Occasionally you need to jolt your system with something new.
In writing a novel with an unusual narrative structure—long prologue, sudden timeskip, rushed epilogue—James is exploring a new kind of storytelling, one that is paralleled by his unconventional approach to worldbuilding. A rogue’s gallery of monsters drawn from African myth are mentioned in passing without much exposition as to what they look like until we meet them. The very confusion generated highlights how encumbered fantasy has become with its European bestiary. We know what werewolves and vampires are, but what the hell is an Ipundulu? Or a grass troll—is it a species of African orc? Education is sometimes uncomfortable. But those who persevere past their initial disorientation will be rewarded.
Brightness is also out to educate. For Kay, who is writing about history as a set of unexpected occurrences in the lives of individuals, that means showing us the world away from the defining conflict of its time—the siege of Sarantium—as proof that life and politics go on even in the midst of great historical events. Our characters will perhaps go unnoted by historians, but their choices will still affect the outcomes of important moments. That is why some character arcs end so unspectacularly. It’s realistic. But the journey to those endpoints is so wonderfully executed that Kay can be forgiven. And at the very end of the story we are told that even though our loved ones may have died and been forgotten, they have not been forgotten by us, and we can keep those memories and let them guide us through every turning of Fortune’s wheel. We live on in memory “for as near to always as we are allowed.”
What truly makes these novels wonderous reading are the powerful character moments placed alongside this didacticism. Without them the stories might feel gimmicky, amongst the worst of fiction that doesn’t understand that its primary purpose is entertainment, not commentary. Each novel has a romance element, each with its own strength. Leopard’s is an explosion of tenderness after a violent streak lasting hundreds of pages; it’s a queer love story that feels as healing for the reader as the characters involved. Brightness’ is bittersweet, told in flashback and framed in the evening light of memory, a soft, warm illumination that picks out that fullness of life we can’t always find in the moment. Powerful scenes linger long after the last page is turned: a horse-race to end all others, a gladiatorial ogre fight, a tree where love lives, and chance encounters on a green, windy road that alter the course of a life.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf and A Brightness Long Ago are two novels with things you didn’t want but can enjoy, and things you didn’t know you wanted and will love. Surrender and be astonished.
Contributed by Tahmeed Shafiq