The prologue to the novel is Carpentier’s most often quoted text, in which he coins the term lo real maravilloso ("marvellous reality") in reference to seemingly miraculous occurrences in Latin America. This is contrasted with the lack of magic and imagination in European folklore. Furthermore, his trip to Haiti in 1943 is recounted, as well as some of the research he did to gather facts for the novel. Carpentier also denounces the commonplace and formulaic instances of the marvellous that is found in surrealist novels due to its inorganic and false origins, as opposed to the natural magic that is found in Latin America.
Ti Noel recalls the tales that a fellow slave, Macandal, would regale on the plantation of their master, Lenormand de Mezy. Macandal would tell tales of magical characters and mythical kingdoms with rivers rising in the sky. He is said to not only have irresistible qualities that appeal to black women, but also the ability to captivate men. He suffers an accident in which his left hand is caught in machinery, and his arm is dragged in up to the shoulder. Being useless to his owner, he departs for the mountains and discovers many secret herbs, plants, and fungi that appear to have magical qualities. Ti Noel joins Macandal and both learn about the magical attributes of these natural elements. Macandal suggests that the time has come, and no longer goes to the plantation. After the rain season has passed, Ti Noel meets with him in a cave populated with strange items. Macandal has established contact with surrounding plantations, and gives instructions to ensure the death of cows using secret herbs.
The poison spreads, killing livestock by the hundreds as well as Frenchmen, wiping out adults and children. Madame Lenormand de Mezy dies as a result, and the deaths continue with entire families suffering the same fate. At gunpoint, a slave eventually explains that Macandal has superhuman powers and is the Lord of Poison. Death within the plantations returns to normal rates as a result and the Frenchmen return to playing cards and drinking, as months pass with no word of Macandal. Macandal, now with the ability to transform into animal forms, like bird, fish, or insect, visits the plantation to affirm faith in his return. The slaves decide to wait four years for Macandal to complete his metamorphoses and once again become a human, with testicles like rocks.
After four years, he returns during a celebration and all present are delighted. The chanting alerts the white men, and preparations are made to capture Macandal. He is captured and tied to a post in order to be lashed and burned in front of massive black crowds, but he escapes, flying overhead, and lands among the crowd. He is again captured and burned, but the slaves are certain that he has been saved by African Gods and return to their plantations, laughing.
Lenormand de Mezy's second wife has died and the city has made remarkable progress. Henri Christophe is a master chef. Twenty years have gone by and Ti Noel has fathered twelve children by one of the cooks. He has told these children many stories of Macandal and they await his return. A secret gathering of trusted slaves takes place: Bouckman, the Jamaican, speaks of possible freedom for the blacks emerging in France and also mentions the opposition from the plantation landowners. An uprising is planned; as a result of this meeting, conch-shell trumpets sound and slaves, armed with sticks, surround the houses of their masters. Upon hearing the conch-shells Lenormand de Mezy is frightened and manages to hide.
The slaves kill the white men and drink much alcohol. Ti Noel, after drinking, rapes Mademoiselle Floridor, who is Lenormand de Mezy's latest mistress. The uprising is defeated and Bouckman is killed. The governor, Blanchelande, advocates for the complete extermination of the colony's black population, as they pose a threat with their voodoo and secret religion. Several of the rebels are gathered to be publicly executed, but Lenormand de Mezy secures the release of his slaves, including Ti Noel, intending to sell them in the slave markets in Cuba. Lenormand de Mezy takes Ti Noel and other slaves to Cuba, where he becomes lazy, conducts no business, enjoys the women, drinks alcohol, and gambles away his slaves.
Pauline Bonaparte accompanies Leclerc, her army general husband, to Haiti. On the way there, she enjoys sexually tempting the men on the ship. Solimán, a black slave, massages her body and lavishes loving care on her beauty. Leclerc develops yellow fever, and Pauline trusts in the voodoo and magic of Solimán to cure him. Leclerc dies, and Pauline returns to Paris while the Rochambeau government treats the blacks very poorly. However, there isthe emergence of black priests who allow the slaves to conduct more business internally.
Ti Noel has been won in a card game by a plantation owner based in Santiago, and Lenormand de Mezy dies in abject poverty shortly afterwards. Ti Noel saves enough money to buy his passage, and as a free man, he discovers a free Haiti. Now much older, he realizes that he has returned to the former plantation of Lenormand de Mezy. Haiti has undergone great development, and the land has come under the control of the black man. Ti Noel is abruptly thrown into prison and once again made to work as a slave among children, pregnant girls, women, and old men. Henri Christophe, formerly a cook and now king due to the black uprising, is using slaves to construct lavish statues, figures, and a magnificent fortress. Ti Noel considers slavery under a fellow black man worse than that endured at the hands of Lenormand de Mezy.
In times past, the loss of a slave would be a financial loss, but as long as there are black women to continue supplying slaves, their deaths are insignificant. Ti Noel escapes and returns to the former plantation of Lenormand de Mezy, where he remains for some time, and later returns to the city to find it gripped by fear of Henri Christophe's regime. King Christophe is tormented by thunder strikes and ghosts of formerly tortured subjects, and eventually he and Sans-Souci Palace are overrun by the blacks and by voodoo. Left alone, he commits suicide and his body is taken by the remaining African pages to the magnificent fortress where they bury him in a pile of mortar. The entire mountain becomes the mausoleum of the first King of Haiti.
Henri Christophe's widow and children are taken to Europe by English merchants, who used to supply the royal family. Solimán accompanies them and enjoys the summers in Rome, where he is treated well and tells embellished tales of his past. He encounters a statue of Pauline whose form brings back memories, and sends him into a howl, causing the room to be rushed. He is reminded of the night of Henri Christophe's demiseand flees before succumbing to malaria. Ti Noel recalls things told by Macandal, and the former plantation of Lenormand de Mezy has become a happy place, with Ti Noel presiding over celebrations and festivities. Surveyors disrupt the peace at the plantation, and mulattoes have risen to power; theyforce hundreds of black prisoners to work by whiplash, and many have lost hope as the cycle of slavery continues.
Ti Noel, thinking of Macandal, decides to transform into various animals to observe the ongoing events; he metamorphoses into a bird, a stallion, a wasp, and then an ant. He eventually becomes a goose, but is rejected by the clan of geese. He understands that being a goose does not imply that all geese are equal, so he returns to human form. The book concludes with the end of Ti Noel's life, and his own self-reflection upon greatness and The Kingdom of This World.