Book review

Marlon James’ “Moon Witch, Spider King,” the second novel in his Dark Star trilogy, is a medieval feast of dazzling fantasy. It’s vulgar and vivacious, big and brutal, full of rivaling monarchies, Machiavellian ministers, feuding families, revengeful prostitutes, evil priests and a century-old witch, all vying for power in James’ extraordinarily imagined African kingdoms.

Like the first book in the trilogy, “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” “time is a cobra,” coiling in and around itself in fascinating and fantastic ways. In “Moon Witch,” James explores the same story of the missing boy (spoiler to say more) as the first book, but from a different character’s perspective, Sogolon, the Moon Witch.

The novel is divided into five meaty sections (two or three might have been enough). Each section moves us closer to the events in the first novel, spiraling around Sogolon’s stories reflecting on her Rabelaisian life (it’s a perfect word for this novel). This is the Moon Witch’s creation story told from Sogolon’s point of view in her vernacular, a patois that’s often hilarious and profound in its literal crudeness (metaphor does not come easily to her).


One of my favorite sections of the novel is toward the end when a character decides that maybe someone should write down Sogolon’s story before she forgets, or, as happens early in her life, someone like the Aesi (the Spider King), and every King’s chancellor (he’s eternal), erases not just her memories but the memories of entire empires (there’s a metaphor for colonialism here).

Sogolon’s voice is so engaging that it invites readers into this novel with more ease and generosity than Tracker in the first book. Sogolon punctuates the five sections in ways that remind us she’s talking. Like this.


“See the girl. The girl who live in the old termite hill.” Sogolon’s story takes her from a hole in the ground where she’s held captive by her three older brothers, “all wicked.” She escapes to a brothel in a city where she learns that “girlhood is a waste of time,” and that the “burden of a woman” is “having to act stupid to make a stupid man think he smart” (duh).

“See the girl as certain things come to pass.” Sogolon ends up at the royal court of a prosperous kingdom, where the King Sister enjoys Sogolon’s company because she “don’t come with a use.” Sogolon’s magic saves her life more than once, until eventually she becomes a legend in her own time, the Moon Witch. She’s a kind of patron saint of abused women because women’s lives in this world are measured by their menses, their “moonblood” (I’m getting to this).

“This is what the women say” (well, me). Unlike the first novel, several female characters are in the forefront of this one, and, indeed, Sogolon is a formidable one. But whether they’re princesses or prostitutes, almost all the female characters’ fates are tied to their biology and breeding potential. Rape is a fact of their lives (let me warn here that the violence in this book is graphic; a lot involves children and women). Women’s power in this fantastic world is intimately connected to their ability to use sex to their advantage.

Sogolon rises beyond this fate because of her magic, but she’s an exception. I couldn’t help wondering why for all his phenomenal world-building, James couldn’t imagine a different one for women (I know it’s a fantasy medieval world, but still).

When I read the first book in this trilogy, “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” a National Book Award finalist, I knew I was reading a genre-altering trilogy, a series Victor LaValle describes in Bookforum that “tears down the traditional pillars of fantasy” and “rebuilds the temple.” After reading “Moon Witch, Spider King,” I remain convinced that James is rebuilding the genre, but I’m no longer sure he’s demolishing the entire temple.


“Moon Witch, Spider King”

Marlon James, Riverhead Books, 656 pp., $30