Explore the world of literary fantasy with these 6 books

With graphic novels, the possibilities with images are endless and daring, and allow the text to work in other more subtle, ironic ways, say Heather and Arizona O'Neill

Heather and Arizona O'Neill put the spotlight this month on Marlon James' new illustrated book

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a novel by Marlon James. (Bond Street Books, Jeffrey Skemp)

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

Marlon James has done something incredible with this magnificent tome. He has delved into the realm of fantasy, building a rich, imaginary world complete with kingdoms of giants and vampires and fantastic beasts, while using the full colour palette and tool kit of literary fiction.

It is hard to read any other book in the proximity of James's full throttle exploration of the male psyche and sexuality as the writing is so extraordinary.

There are passages that rival the Old Testament in their power and poetry. They make you call up your friends and have you share them out loud. They are beautiful, bold and daring.

The images and metaphors are some of the most challenging and visceral I have encountered in a book in a long time.

The novel bears comparisons to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in that we follow a group of mismatched adventurers who are travelling through a hostile environment with a specific quest. The group is searching for a boy whose identity and importance are slowly revealed. Unlike his friends, the main character, Tracker, lacks the shape-shifting animal abilities, although he has the distinctly animalistic trait of having excellent smell.

Author Marlon James won the Booker in 2015 for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. He became the first Jamaican writer ever to win the prestigious award. (Penguin Random House)

The novel is being hyped as an "African Game of Thrones." I feel this comparison was done for marketing as the two have such enormous differences. One of the ways in which Black Leopard, Red Wolf diverges radically from Game of Thrones, is one of the book's more problematic aspects. Whereas Game of Thrones boasts extraordinarily powerful female characters, those in James's book are distinctly sketchy. In James's book, the women are all hysterical witches.

Whereas the male characters grow and become richer and more empathetic as the story moves along, the female characters are all unknowable and elusive neurotic beings, desperate for power, perverse in their methods to obtain it.

The first section of the book, the most confusing, introduces us to a myriad of characters that will fill the pages of the remaining books of the trilogy. The puzzle is well worth it. The quest for the boy and the revelation of who and what he is, leads to a profound, startling, unforgettable place.

You travel through the jungle with Tracker and come out completely different.

Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin

(Arizona O'Neill)

Mouthful of Birds is a new collection of stories from the author that brought us the enigmatic and suspenseful Fever Dream.

This collection of short stories opens on a truck stop at the edge of a desolate highway where men abandon their wives. The field behind the truck stop is filled with bitter women who have been dumped there throughout the years.

All of the stories have a supernatural feel to them that makes you uncomfortable but also re-examine the world around you. Schweblin uses fantastical conceits to convey the extremities of her views and to highlight those aspects of life that, although normalized through repetition, are actually horrific.

She puts a magnifying glass up to parenthood, viewing it as a troubling, ambivalent and possessive state. She questions the artistic process and its connection to violence against women. (This was interesting to consider in light of the recent fawning over Ted Bundy's atrocities.) And she has an interesting take on depression that will keep you up at night.

This collection is brilliant.

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

(Arizona O'Neill)

Helen Oyeyemi has made a career of using the scaffolding of fairy tales to explore race, femininity and sexuality.

The use of the fairy tale is extremely rich in feminism. Fairy tales have a particularly profound effects on young women, especially since they have been edited detrimentally in order to remove female agency or to create impossible shallow norms and expectations for women via physical appearance and marriage.

Oyeyemi is a profound, sure-footed, witty iconoclast who uses fairy tales to further female empowerment.

Boy, Snow, Bird takes on the Snow White tale and uses it as an investigation of skin colour, superficiality and inheritance.

In the story, set in America in the 1950s, a woman named Boy has a stepdaughter named Snow, who possesses all the classical physical attributes of Snow White. When Boy's own daughter Bird is born, she discovers her husband has been passing as a white man, as the baby is clearly black. The stepmother turns against Snow in a passive aggressive manner that is as damning as anything out of Walt Disney. Neither Snow nor Bird have reflections in mirrors, as they are denied their ability to see themselves lovingly in one another, those around them condemning them to their surfaces.

It is a novel that throws on its head the obsession with physical beauty and purity in the original fairy tale and looks for redemption and the integrity of the self and belonging in a community.

Grief is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter

(Arizona O'Neill)

This book is magical and innovative in content, but also in structure, as it is told in vignettes and poems. The subject matter and form play off one another beautifully.

It is the story of a Ted Hughes scholar whose wife dies, leaving him alone with two boys. The main character from Ted Hughes's famous poem cycle, The Crow, moves in with the grieving family. The trickster Crow torments and mocks the family, particularly the father, personifying the act of mourning and testifying to the vulnerability of human love.

It is exquisitely written and so, so full of love and grace. Sometimes the only way to describe the complexity of our feeling is through poetry, where words themselves are volatile entities capable of erupting into other forms at the ready.

Magical realism is close to poetry in that way. So it makes sense that Max Porter would use a magical figure he met in a poem to describe the wary, conniving, complicated, sweet and touching moments we experience when we lose someone we love.

How Long 'Til Black Future Month by N. K. Jemisin

(Arizona O'Neill)

This is N. K. Jemisin's first book of short stories, and I could not have been more excited to pick it up.

Jemisin has won three consecutive Hugo Awards for her Inheritance Trilogy, therefore making her a huge voice in the sci-fi genre.

Her writing is incredible, powerful and always surprising. She rebuilds traditional sci-fi tropes through the gaze of an African American woman. She normalizes black protagonists in a genre in which they were often left out, and creates sci-fi narratives that reflect their experiences.

In one of my favourite stories of the collection, a young black man is chased through the streets by a police officer. Throughout the story, the police officer turns into a horrific monster, and the only one who seems to notice this change is the young man himself.

Tourists are taking pictures of the event but are immune to the true monstrosity of the circumstances. The young man has to battle the monster to the death using fighting moves named after New York City landmarks. It is as if the city is fighting back with him.

It is an amazing work of art.

Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët

(Arizona O'Neill)

Beautiful Darkness, newly out in paperback, has been one of my favourite graphic novels for years.

It is presented as a children's book with cute drawings and pastel colours. But there is of course much below the icing on this cake.

It starts off with a young girl having tea with a prince when the walls and roof start to cave in. They run out of their home with hundreds of others.

As we pull back from the image we realize that all these little people are climbing out of a dead girl's body and scattering into the woods. All these creatures make up who she was, and we must now watch these individual parts of her being try to survive in the wild.

It is like Lord of the Flies, but with fragments of a young girl's personality fighting one another for survival.

Graphic novels have an easier time incorporating fantasy elements into their stories. Images make the world-building clearer, whereas in novels you have to include so much detail to build a fantastical environment.

This is one of the reasons we love graphic novels so much: the possibilities with images are endless and daring, and they allow the text to work in other more subtle, ironic ways.

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About the Author

Heather and Arizona O'Neill

CBC Homerun Book Columnists

Heather O'Neill is an award winning novelist, short story writer, and essayist who lives in Montreal. She is Arizona's Mom. Arizona O'Neill is a filmmaker and avid reader who lives in Montreal. She is Heather's daughter. Follow them on their Instagram @oneillreads


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