‘Moon Witch, Spider King’ — Book two in Marlon James’ Dark Star African fantasy trilogy — is ‘utterly uncompromising’
Marlon James’ 2019 novel “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” (the first novel in the Dark Star trilogy) chronicled an ill-fated quest. The novel’s protagonist, Tracker, was hired to find a young boy, joining up with a ragtag crew including Leopard (his shape-shifting confidante), a giant, another mercenary, and a witch. Early in the book, Tracker, who is imprisoned following the failure of the quest, casts blame on the witch. He tells an inquisitor, “The child is dead. I know the old woman brings you different news.”
The old woman, the witch, is named Sogolon; James’ breathtaking new novel, “Moon Witch, Spider King,” is her story. And to say her account differs from Tracker’s is both to be expected, and a colossal understatement. While Sogolon accuses him of murdering the child, Tracker suggests his only regret is that he didn’t kill her.
“Moon Witch, Spider King” is a largely chronological account of Sogolon’s life, which spans more than a century. Readers first meet her “in the dream jungle … not a dream, but a memory that jump up in my sleep to usurp it.” She lives in a termite hill, imprisoned by her three brothers, who blame her for their mother’s death in childbirth, and she dreams of escape. “She is going to flee, crawl out of this hole and run and never stop running. And if toe fall off, she will run on heel, and if heel fall off, she will run on knee, and if knee fall off, she will crawl.” When she does escape, it is the beginning of an odyssey that will include time as a thief, a victim of sexual abuse, a ward of a disgraced former courtier, the confidante of a princess, a mother, a prisoner, a hermit, and, ultimately, the Moon Witch, an avenging angel serving out justice for women harmed by men. Sogolon is always quick to point out, however, that she isn’t actually a witch, that the term itself is a way of victimizing women and maintaining male power, singling out women for harrassment, violence, and murder.
Although she isn’t a witch, Sogolon is supported and protected — and isolated — by a mystical power she doesn’t understand and can’t control. This, along with a caustic wit, a foul mouth, and a powerful sense of herself persevere, even when memory fails.
Her life is guided by her involvement with the Aesi, a chancellor to the king, with the power to destroy memory, to eliminate anyone from existence by removing all memory of them. Sogolon is seemingly immune to his powers, and when she attracts his attention the narrative opposition which drives the book — and shapes her life — falls into place, leading directly to the ill-fated mission with Tracker, and beyond. (That mission actually forms a relatively small portion of the novel, and because we are seeing events from Sogolon’s perspective, it is not necessary to read the first novel, “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” first.)
James, who won the Man Booker Prize in 2015 for “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” is one of the finest writers at work today, and “Moon Witch, Spider King” is a complex, enthralling novel. It is also utterly uncompromising, a book which the reader must meet on its own terms.
From the outset, we are fully immersed in Sogolon’s consciousness, her perspective, her language. We are also subject to her biases, her temper, her poor decisions and the limitations of her experience. As a result, it is impossible to rest comfortably in the correctness of her decisions. That discomfort is at the core of the novel’s success.
The novels of the Dark Star trilogy are about, in part, the impossibility of truth in storytelling, and how that uncertainty is one of storytelling’s greatest strengths. Do we accept Tracker’s version of events, or Sogolon’s account? Each is compelling; each reads as true. And what of the third novel? Whose story will that be?
It is best, perhaps, to allow Sogolon the last word, for now: “[T]hat silly, slutty fool don’t even know that this tale is not just bigger than him, but one hundred seventy and seven years older. Because for all his love and all his loss, that man with a nose is just a boy. And truth speaking? This is woman work.”
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