Epic fantasy needs to leave medieval Europe. At least, that's what Marlon James, author of the Man Booker Prize-winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, thinks. In a recent interview, James talked about his upcoming book Black Leopard, Red Wolf, and described it as an "African Game of Thrones." And he's fully prepared to "geek the fuck out" with it:
"I realized how sick and tired I was of arguing about whether there should be a black hobbit in Lord of the Rings. African folklore is just as rich, and just as perverse as that shit. We have witches, we have demons, we have goblins, and mad kings. We have stories of royal succession that would put Wolf Hall to shame. We beat the Tudors two times over."
He's absolutely right. There's already a severe dearth of central black and brown characters in high fantasy. Judging from his letters and legendarium, Tolkien's work featured an inherent bias against "dark" peoples, usually casting them as servants of Morgoth and Sauron (though his writing did evolve to reject that early racism). George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire isn't much better, despite our collective love for Khal Drogo. These works are incredible on their own, but are inherently limited.
Elevating African folklore to the level of the Lich Kings we know and love
A series with A Song of Ice and Fire's scope but set in medieval Africa would challenge how Western readers understand fantasy and the role of people of color in the genre. Black writers like N.K. Jemisin and David Anthony Durham already take on the genre with fresh perspectives about oppression and "darkness." James would take that one step further, calling on Africa's history and elevating it to a place where dragons and Lich Kings are already recognizable.
I imagine fantasy based on the rise and fall of the Mali Empire. Maybe the hero would lead a coup against the ruling Mansa, but be possessed by an Adze, or firefly spirit, telling him to turn back. And maybe Ananse the Spider would play the Varys role, telling stories and weaving lies to hide the truth of the empire's inevitable collapse. There are too many ways for a story set in Africa to be powerful and eye-opening and utterly surreal. I can't wait to see it happen.