Thu. May 19th, 2022


In 2015, Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killingsa historical fiction about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976.

His subsequent swerve into the fantasy genre with the publication in 2019 of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first installment of his Dark Star trilogy, was unexpected but won him legions of new fans. Although the book’s dizzying, circuitous plot left many perplexed, the attention it garnered served to demonstrate that the conventional divide between literary and genre fiction is a moot point.

With Moon Witch, Spider Kingthe second volume of his African fantasy saga, James opts for a more linear, less digressive structure, and cements his status as a wildly inventive and lyrical storyteller.

When James first announced the Dark Star trilogy, he called it an “African Game of Thrones”. He later recanted, saying the description was a joke. While that throwaway line might help orient the story, along with Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Stan Lee’s The X-Men, there’s no doubt that these are Marlon James novels. The setting is a pre-colonial, iron-age Africa in which memory is slippery and unreliable narrators obfuscate the truth. It’s a theme that is emphasized by the repeated refrain in Moon Witch: “Here is truth”. Misdirection and dissimulation are the trilogy’s narrative sleight of hand; the intended result is that each installment tells the story from the perspective of a different protagonist and they can be read in any order.

In Black Leopard, Tracker, a bounty hunter with a preternatural ability to trail anyone by scent, tells an unseen inquisitor his fragmented version of the quest to find a mysterious boy, who may or may not be heir to the North Kingdom. Included in Tracker’s motley crew of traveling companions is his antagonist, Sogolon, the 177-year-old Moon Witch. She stands out among the female characters, many of whom are little more than witches, whores and pawns in a game of political one-upmanship – and who find themselves on the receiving end of much of James’ trademark violence.

In this second installment, Sogolon offers her own take on the story, and with it a compelling riposte to accusations that James only writes misogynistic characters. Moon Witch is no less violent than Black Leopard but, seen from Sogolon’s point of view, the violence mostly feels like a legitimate function of storytelling – and a further subversion of the fantasy genre’s stereotypically heteronormative and Eurocentric tropes.

There’s a lot more to Moon Witch than just Sogolon’s version of the premise on which the first novel hangs, and she has her own dubious motivations for joining the search. This second volume is both a educational novel and a thriller that begins more than 150 years before the events of the first volume. In fact, Sogolon’s story does not intersect with Tracker’s until about 100 pages before the end of this 656-page book. We meet our anti-heroine when she is a “no name” little girl, consigned to live in a termite hill by three older brothers who blame her for their mother’s death in childbirth. It’s the bleak beginning to a hard-knock life, but the doggedness that is the defining trait of her personality – and also her Achilles heel – is there early on: “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 Sogolon manages to escape, her latent magical powers – which she calls “wind (not wind)” – are revealed when she inadvertently kills a man trying to rape her. It’s the start of an epic odyssey, backgrounded by generations-long tensions and wars between the avaricious kings in Fasisi, the capital of the North Kingdom, and the mad kings of Wakadishu, the South Kingdom’s central city.

Always underestimated, Sogolon is variously a thief, rape victim, a fight-club competitor, the common-law wife of a shape-shifting lion, a mother, a prisoner, a recluse among gorillas and monkeys, a bounty hunter and eventually the Moon Witch. Like an ancient African Lisbeth Salander, she dedicates her lonesomeness to meting out lethal rough justice to men who harm women. Sogolon maintains, “man is doing what they feel they must do, and woman is making do”. But over the decades, her spiky, wilful, bloodthirsty tenacity often works to her detriment and to the advantage of her nemesis, the Aesi, chancellor to one of the northern kings.

As gripping as the novel is, it’s a long and tough read. Sometimes it even feels confrontational: the author’s frequent knowing refrain is “let us make this quick”. James’s story is a dense, sprawling phantasmagoria made even more labyrinthine by his stream-of-consciousness idiosyncrasies and sudden time leaps. It’s a confident writer who uses African words and phrases without the need for exposition and sustains a diction that mimics the present-tense grammatical syntax of many west African languages.

But Moon Witch rewards a reader’s perseverance and makes you wonder exactly who’ll play fast and loose with the truth in the final installment, if you have the stomach and staying power to seek it out.

Moon Witch, Spider King by Marlon James, Hamish Hamilton £ 20 / Penguin Publishing Group $ 30, 656 pages

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