Last year I had the pleasure of diving into Black Leopard, Red Wolf while I was on a long weekend getaway with my girlfriend. Marlon James’ dreamlike writing paired with the surreal scenes and stream of consciousness narrative dragged me into his book as if it were a black hole. I had a hard time remembering what was real and what I imagined as I read each scene. Each time I found footing, James rocked the boat and reminded me I was not on solid ground. I did not feel equipped to read it because my mind had not coalesced on what the book was, and what it meant to me. However, Moon Witch, Spider King, the second in the James’ Dark Star Trilogy is an empowering and brutal follow up that brings the first book into sharper focus, while telling a story completely on its own terms.
Sogolon is a woman of no reputation, no place to truly call home and barely a group of people she considers family. She barely even has a name, often replying with Sogolon when those she encounters tires of her response, “I have no name.” But to her, this lack of place and identity also means no obligations, and this lack becomes itself a power. Brought to Fasisi by an out of favor noblewoman, Sogolon is gifted as a slave to the King’s sister. With her prying eyes, and inability to bend to men’s will, she becomes a subject of curiosity to the King’s advisor, the Aesi. He has the power to affect the memories of those around him, but Sogolon is a void to him, an unalterable presence that has the potential to be more than just a nuisance. But Sogolon has powers of her own besides her indomitable will. She carries on a decades-long feud with the Aesi, donning the mantle of Moon Witch. Is her presence and power enough to alter the fate of the northern kingdoms, or is she doomed to suffer the fate of all who fall under the Aesi’s spell?
Off the bat, it’s impossible to dismiss that James is an incredible writer with some of the most compelling prose I’ve read. Sogolon’s voice growls from the page as she recounts her story. Her combativeness often feels pointed at the reader, challenging one to question her side of the story. It pushed me through each page, creating a snowballing effect. Sogolon’s descriptions are sparse, but direct, lending the reader her eyes and thoughts with little lost in translation. The world feels both lush and full of life, yet contained within the bubble of Sogolon’s direct knowledge. The dialogue thrives with vitality, arguments have a weight and cadence to them that howl off of the page. The experience of just reading James words is a delight on its own, before we even start digging into other aspects of the book.
The characters are incredible. I found myself much more attached to Sogolon’s narration than I did Tracker’s. They both felt a disdain for the world, but Sogolon is more of a predatory snake to Tracker’s thrashing cornered panther , sticking to the shadows and observing, waiting for the moment to strike. This leads to a more passive experience than Black Leopard, Red Wolf, but it’s deliberate and stalking. It did not feel as frantic and reactive to events, allowing me as the reader to fully digest the events at hand. It may make some readers frustrated that this powerful woman is barely doing anything until she is forced to, but it pays off in the long run in incredibly satisfying ways. Sogolon’s growth and story is top notch. I don’t want to say too much about the Aesi, but James just nails his creepiness and otherworldly feel. His distance from the rest of the people is palpable and uncanny. Not to mention it’s an absolute delight to see Tracker from someone else’s eyes.
The story reads like someone following a slow burning fuse down a hallway lit only by the burn. It’s meandering, but forces you to look at it, waiting to see where it goes next. Sogolon’s life is terrifying and harsh, often seen as a toy to those who see her as their ward. She becomes a party to ruling families and even kings, just by being shuffled around. I particularly enjoyed her ability to watch, and observe the world around her without reacting to the events unfolding. It makes these bigger events that affect the world feel both dynamic and static, both huge and inconsequential. It’s a weird balance, but James makes it work by twisting genre tropes and using them for his own ends.
The book goes down easily. Every aspect fits neatly into its moment, making the act of reading satisfying. And yet, the time I’ve spent thinking about the book afterwards feels even more rewarding. There are a few moments in the story where everything James sets up slams into focus, turning the ever sought frisson to eleven. While they are strong in the moment, they feel even more powerful in hindsight, bringing sharper details to each moment like a set of stacked magnifying lenses. A little further than halfway through the book, James really starts to play his hand, especially in regards to “man telling a woman’s story,” and it’s mind boggling how cleanly it comes across. It’s like watching a snowball build mass and speed from a TV, only to realize that the camera has been zoomed in the whole time and the object is ten times larger, and ten times faster than you thought. And it just keeps going from there, building to a climactic finish that caused my throat to tighten and my eyes to water. And I still can’t stop thinking about it.
If you read Black Leopard, Red Wolf and are hesitant about Moon Witch, Spider King, don’t be. The second book clarified a lot for me about James’ world, while providing an incredible story for Sogolon. The writing alone is worth the effort, but the book is packed to the brim with character, story, and themes. It’s easily going to be one of the best books I read this year, and I finished it in March. So step outside, when the moon is bright, and look to the sky.
Rating: Moon Witch, Spider King – 10/10