King kingdom

Moon Witch, Spider King — Marlon James continues his Dark Star saga

In 2015, Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize for his novel A brief history of seven murdersa historical fiction about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976.

His subsequent shift into the fantasy genre with the 2019 release of Black leopard, red wolf, the first installment of his Dark Star trilogy, was unexpected but won him legions of new fans. Although the book’s dizzying and devious plot left many perplexed, the attention it garnered served to demonstrate that the conventional divide between literature and genre fiction is a moot point.

With Moon Witch, Spider Kingthe second volume of his African fantasy saga, James opts for a more linear, less digressive structure, and cements his status as a wildly inventive and lyrical storyteller.

When James first announced the Dark Star Trilogy, he called it “African game of thrones”. He later recanted, saying the description was a joke. Although this disposable line may help steer the story, with Tolkien The Lord of the Rings and Stan Lee The X-Men, there is no doubt that these are Marlon James novels. The setting is a pre-colonial Iron Age Africa in which memory is slippery and unreliable narrators obscure the truth. It is a theme that is emphasized by the repeated refrain in Moon Witch“Here is the truth”. Misdirection and concealment are the trilogy’s narrative sleight of hand; the intended result is that each episode tells the story from the perspective of a different protagonist and they can be read in any order.

In black leopard, Tracker, a bounty hunter with an uncanny ability to track anyone by scent, tells an unseen inquisitor about his fragmented version of the quest to find a mysterious boy, who may or may not be the heir of the Northern Kingdom. Included in Tracker’s motley crew of fellow travelers is its antagonist, Sogolon, the 177-year-old Moon Witch. She stands out among the female characters, many of whom are little more than witches, whores and pawns in a game of political one-upmanship – and who find themselves the victims of much of James’ signature violence.

In this second installment, Sogolon offers his own take on the story, and with it a compelling retort to accusations that James only writes misogynistic characters. Moon Witch is no less violent than black leopard but, seen from Sogolon’s perspective, the violence mostly feels like a legitimate function of storytelling – and another subversion of the fantasy genre’s stereotypical heteronormative and Eurocentric tropes.

There’s a lot more to Moon Witch than Sogolon’s version of the premise the first novel is based on, and she has her own questionable motives for joining the search. This second volume is both a bildungsroman and a thriller that begins over 150 years before the events of the first book. In fact, Sogolon’s story only overlaps with Tracker’s about 100 pages before the end of this 656-page book. We meet our anti-heroine when she is an “unnamed” little girl, consigned to a termite mound by three older brothers who blame her for the death of their mother in childbirth. It’s the dark beginning of a difficult life, but the tenacity that is the defining trait of her personality – and also her Achilles heel – is there from the start: “And if the toe drops, she will run on the heel, and if the heel drops, she will run on the knee and if the knee drops, she will crawl.

When Sogolon manages to escape, her latent magic powers – which she calls “the wind (not the wind)” – are revealed when she inadvertently kills a man trying to rape her. It is the beginning of an epic odyssey, marked by tensions and wars of several generations between the avaricious kings of Fasisi, the capital of the Kingdom of the North, and the mad kings of Wakadishu, the central city of the Kingdom of the South.

Always underestimated, Sogolon is by turns a thief, a rape victim, a fight club competitor, the concubine of a shapeshifting lion, a mother, a prisoner, a recluse among gorillas and apes, a hunter bounties and finally the Moon. Witch. Like a former African Lisbeth Salander, she devotes her solitude to bringing brutal and deadly justice to men who harm women. Sogolon maintains that “the man does what he feels he must do, and the woman does with it”. But over the decades, his bristling, willful, bloodthirsty tenacity often works to his detriment and to the benefit of his nemesis, the Aesi, chancellor to one of the Kings of the North.

As captivating as the novel is, it is a long and difficult read. Sometimes it even feels confrontational: the author’s usual refrain is “let’s do it fast.” James’ story is a dense, sprawling phantasmagoria made all the more labyrinthine by its stream-of-consciousness idiosyncrasies and abrupt time jumps. He is a confident writer who uses African words and phrases without the need for exposition and maintains a diction that mimics the present tense grammatical syntax of many West African languages.

Corn moon witch rewards a reader’s perseverance and makes you wonder just who will play fast and loose with the truth in the latest episode, if you have the stomach and stamina to seek it out.

Moon Witch, Spider King by Marlon James, Hamish Hamilton £20 / Penguin Publishing Group $30, 656 pages

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