Review of the book “Moon Witch, Spider King” by Marlon James
Set in a war-torn ancient world, “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” tells the story of the search for a boy who may be the key to the kingdom’s survival. Much of the book – a collection of adventures oxidized by the haze of legend – depicts a group that sets out to find the lost child. Throughout their years-long search, the red wolf and his lover, the shapeshifting black leopard, work in an uneasy collaboration with a buffalo, a melancholy giant, and a witch named Sogolon.
This old woman, who insists she’s not really a witch, is now the subject of the second volume of the Dark Star trilogy. “Moon Witch, Spider King” is a companion rather than a sequel to the previous book. Its story begins more than a century before the adventures of Wolf and Leopard — indeed, you’ll want to sit down: they only appear in this new tome for 500 pages.
These are the memoirs of a reluctant killer, an inconsolable 177-year-old woman who claims, “I never had a happy day.” She wants nothing more than to be left alone or to die. She never gets any of these wishes. “Everything annoys me,” she says in her heavy patois. “Everything annoys me, and everything contributes to making me bitter.”
Sogolon’s bitterness germinates very early in her life, when she is held on a leash and terrorized by a trio of brothers, “all wicked”. She eventually manages to escape after blinding a brother with her urine and cutting off his hand. It’s that kind of family.
Sogolon finds working in a brothel to be an improvement. But she eventually passed for a gift to the princess of the Akum dynasty, mother of the future king of the empire. Not quite an enslaved woman or a companion, Sogolon hovers in a precarious position. The palace, after all, is a place where subjects are whipped, dismembered, and fried for the slightest infractions. But even at the risk of losing his life, Sogolon shows no deference to anyone, a quality we see in caustic dialogues often shockingly funny. Remarkably, his pugnacious attitude amuses the princess, who leans on the young “bush girl” for her refreshing candor.
Once in the capital, James becomes embroiled in the filial and political dysfunction of the kingdom. His depiction of the Akum dynasty sparkles with Swiftian absurdity, beginning with a series of royal palaces built and then abandoned for the rise of each new king. Moreover, the complicated structure of succession in this kingdom essentially guarantees murderous tensions within the royal family.
But while the kingdom is in perpetual upheaval, there is one presence that remains constant year after year, even decade after decade: the King’s Chancellor, known as Aesi. “Some kind of diminished divine thing”, the Aesi is an incredibly tall man with red hair and skin the color of dark green moss. This malevolent official exercises control, in part, by launching witch hunts that keep the capital in a perpetual state of paranoia and litter the streets with the bodies of executed women. Among his supernatural powers is the ability to erase people‘s memories, a handy tool for confusing the royal family, obliterating enemies, and blurring the path to succession to the throne.
But there is one person whose spirit the Aesi cannot erase: the young woman known as Sogolon. His mental toughness catches his eye early on and indicates a cataclysmic showdown on the horizon. The horizon, however, is far away.
While the Leopard and the Wolf immediately appear as manly action heroes in the first volume of the Dark Star Trilogy, in this new volume James moves slowly to develop his reluctant warrior. For years, Sogolon has no idea of his special power. What she calls “the wind (not the wind)” comes to her rescue and carries her enemies away, but it remains mysterious and unreliable.
It is only after Sogolon suffers a crushing loss that she fuses her grief and anger into a fearsome weapon of revenge. Like a former predecessor of Lisbeth Salander, she devotes her solitary life to responding to calls from abused girls and women. They search for her in the forest “with a mountain of trouble, and nine times out of ten that problem is a man,” she says. “I stop being a woman, I stop being an instrument of revenge and I start being folklore.”
But even this rarefied role makes her feel uneasy. “She wants people to know her only by her footsteps,” James wrote. “She wants to move.
I want her to move too. When Sogolon moves, “Moon Witch, Spider King” dramatically comes to life. James choreographs fight scenes that make Quentin Tarantino films relatively quiet. And there’s a catalog of devilishly resourceful creatures crawling along ceilings, leaping from behind trees, and even reaching fourth-dimensional portals to make the pages shudder in terror.
In its structure and rhythm, however, it is a different novel from “Black Leopard, Red Wolf”. The previous book was certainly difficult, but it was a great quest, rushing forward with inexorable momentum, basking in its great length to unfold a series of adventures.
“Moon Witch, Spider King,” on the other hand, is the confession of someone harboring horrible anger and consuming grief. As such, the story sometimes slips into pits of rumination that increase the lingering fog of the narrative. These challenges are exacerbated by this series’ special lexicon, which involves so many fantastical geographical references and cryptozoological figures that I began to worry that the Aesi had erased my mind as well. There are hundreds of pages woven from phrases like this: “I meet the prince of Mitu in the woods of Longclaw, the cold mountain forest between the Mantha Trail and the border of Fasisi.” And only readers who have very recently read “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” will have a chance to snowball into Mantha following the final section of this new volume, which offers a highly compressed and surprisingly elliptical account of the boy’s search. lost.
Sogolon is a thrilling and haunting heroine; in fact, she is “the baddest woman alive”. And when she says, “Every connection reminded me of loneliness,” my heart aches for her to be free from such grief. But I would also like her to be able to detach herself a little from the dense thicket of this novel.
The Dark Star Trilogy, Volume 2