REVIEW: Moon Witch, Spider King by Marlon James
Moon Witch, Spider King, Marlon James (Riverhead 978-0-735-22020-1, $30.00, 656pp, hc) February 2022.
I’m fresh off reading Marlon James’s Moon Witch, Spider King, and I’m happy to report that the successor to Black Leopard, Red Wolf (which was nominated for the National Book Award and is in development as a television series) is an even greater achievement than its predecessor.
You can read Three Crow‘s 2019 interview with Marlon James here. In the interview, James discusses the writing of the first of the Dark Star Trilogy, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, describes his influences, and some of his plans for the trilogy. The universe of the trilogy is populated with magic, monsters, shapeshifters, and magical doors.
James intended the books in the trilogy to create a Rashomon effect so that the narrators of different books are describing the same events from their particular point of view.
The central character in the first book of the trilogy, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is Tracker, a man with the ability to determine by smell the location, regardless of distance, of a target. The book is loosely organized around a search for a boy, the question of who the boy is, the boy’s relationship to royalistic machinations of the North and South Lands, and the related schemes of an evil creature called the Aesi.
One of the characters Tracker encounters in Black Leopard, Red Wolf is Sologon, who is on a quest to find the child whom Tracker also seeks. Tracker does not trust Sologon, who has hidden motives of her own.
Unlike Wanda Maximoff, Sologon doesn’t lose her mind with grief. Unlike Game of Throne’s Daenerys Targaryen, Sologon doesn’t go mad with power. Despite the many horrors she experiences, she doesn’t lose her humanity.
The second book in the trilogy, Moon Witch, Spider King, is the story of Sologon, who, later in the book, is the eponymous Moon Witch. Although the threat of the Aesi chases Sologon through much of the book, only the last approximately hundred pages overlap with the specifics of Tracker’s tale in Black Leopard, Red Wolf.
Moon Witch, Spider King begins with Sologon as an unnamed young child, enslaved by her brothers. She escapes from that nightmare into another one of prostitution, and ultimately events take her to the royal court and the larger forces of the book. Sologon is telekinetic but has limited control over her powers. These powers provide her with some protection from the various traumas she experiences. Sologon emerges from harrowing conflicts involving the Aesi, monsters, and atrocities of varying kinds with a greater control over her power and the skills of a fighter. She remains the woman with no name, however, until a kind man invites her into his home. For a time, Sologon lives a happy life, with love and children. Before too long, however, the Aesi’s influence catches up to her, and she is again embroiled in the forces that shaped her early life.
Sologon retreats to the wilderness for over a century, barely aging, only emerging to avenge wronged women. It is in this stage of her narrative that her life crosses paths with Tracker. A woman has been wronged; her child has been stolen from her. So, Sologon seeks the child, the same child whom Tracker is pursuing.
Moon Witch, Spider King is the origin story of a feminist hero with a fully realized interior. Her nature defies many of our current female fantasy icons. Unlike Marvel’s Black Widow, Sologon doesn’t martyr herself for a greater purpose. Unlike Wanda Maximoff, Sologon doesn’t lose her mind with grief. Unlike Game of Throne’s Daenerys Targaryen, Sologon doesn’t go mad with power. Despite the many horrors she experiences, she doesn’t lose her humanity.
Moon Witch, Spider King, like its predecessor, is chock-full with monsters inhuman and human. The most memorable fantastical character is a spider boy. Earlier in the narrative, he scuttles across ceilings; later he is bigger than a house, terrorizing people upon orders of the Aesi-influenced king. Equally harrowing is the the cruelty of humans, from Sologon’s brothers to the patrons of the brothel to the King of the South Lands and his evil sons.
Like its predecessor, Moon Witch, Spider King has a dream-like, acid trip quality to it. There is no predictable Western canon of horrors here. Reading the book is like looking up and seeing an entirely new constellation of stars. Thus, the reading experience is forever surprising.
By Julie Ann Rea