Marlon James, Moon Witch, Spider King (2022)

Author: Marlon James

Title: Moon Witch, Spider King

Format: e-book

Pages: 626

Series: The Dark Star Trilogy #2

First things first – I’M BAACK! 😉 My vacation in Poland proved to be more adventurous than expected, what with flights cancelled barely days before departure and getting covid right after we finally arrived in Poland after 72 hours of travel… But that might be a topic for a separate post, because today I’m going to write about James’s long-awaited sequel to Black Leopard, Red Wolf.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf was a singular book: dark with horrifying, intimate violence, propulsively emotional, full of fantastical monsters (some of which were still wearing human skin), crass and whimsically poetic, and, ultimately, abrasively addictive. The protagonist, Tracker, was bare against the world: his emotions were naked, extreme, and absolutely understandable for everyone who ever met a boy on a cusp of manhood.

But why do I write about the prequel in the review of the second installment? Well, because Moon Witch, Spider King is not similar to Black Leopard, Red Wolf in any recognizable manner – and yet it serves as a satisfactory juxtaposition of perspective to the first book. Moon Witch… tells the tale of Sogolon, the old witch we already know from Tracker’s tale, the witch we all rather despise even though we know of Tracker’s misogyny and his total lack of empathy to anyone so vastly different from him.

James knows this all, after all he devised it so, and so he spends lengthy chapters of this new book in attempts to warm us to Sogolon – telling us the tearjerking tale of her terrible childhood, full of abuse, subjugation, suspicion and hatred. And yet, James doesn’t really know his readers, it seems – for these early chapters are, in hindsight, totally unnecessary. We don’t need warming up to Sogolon – she doesn’t want it, nor does she require it. These chapters, however, lengthen the book considerably and while they might offer a bit of background, they sure could’ve done it all in a much more succinct way. Sogolon is a survivor, and that’s all we need to know. She is a lean, mean killing machine, as steadfast in her deep hatred as she is in her absolute love. Maybe even a bit more inclined to hatred than to love, in the end, to revenge instead of protection – but what else is left to you when your enemy is a demigod, reincarnating again and again since times immemorial, always gravitating toward power, and always welcomed by that power? Somehow it’s the Aesi who forms the core of this novel: he exerts a gravitational pull, twisting and altering Sogolon’s life in ways that make it no longer her own.

James spends so much time on the early days of Sogolon’s life that the events of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, i.e. the other side of the story told by Tracker, take maybe 20% of the book. I know, I know, I shouldn’t be cross because we’re talking about a long, full life here – the witch (not witch, I can hear Sogolon insist) lived for nearly 200 years already, had at some point a loving family, became an institution of revenge for wronged women at another, and even magical fire or burying her alive deep underground didn’t manage to kill her, so possibly nothing will, except the fulfillment of her revenge. But while we read lengthy chapters about the time she spends with kings and princesses, in royal enclosures and throne rooms, none of it has the emotional impact of Tracker’s raw, personal tale – maybe because Sogolon is treated like an object by all those elites, and like a role by her family. Or maybe because her tale is ultimately a tale of ownership, of colonization – her memories, her life, are not her own: she had lost both in her lifelong conflict with the Aesi. Sogolon can only narrate what she was told of her own life by others; whether it’s true or not, nobody can say. There are no witnesses left alive, there are no documents she could check, and her own family is generations gone – she was robbed of her past so effectively that only glimpses remain: emotions, obscure leanings, feelings that something is closer to truth than something else. Looks like James is spinning an allegory within an allegory here. Tracker’s story is one of tragedy and loss that’s raw and immediate and intimate; Sogolon’s story is full of a different kind of pain – remote and dull, but equally tragic. Who are you when you’re robbed of your identity? Do you create a new identity? Do you try to recreate the old one from tales that are not your own and that you cannot fully trust? Sogolon’s plight is reflected not only in her emotions, remote and cold, but also in her language: coarse and limited, ungrammatical, distanced and filled with enforced, somewhat artificial detachment, as when she speaks of herself in third person.

But Sogolon is a survivor. A cold, mean-spirited survivor who holds on to life with tooth and claw, who had her dignity taken away from her too many times to care, who after losing everything had found the core of herself and discovered it was after all immutable and true. And you know what? Tracker’s assessment of Sogolon might not have been far off the mark – she’s no friend to anyone, she’s one cranky, abrasive and mean old woman who cares about nobody, even herself, and who possesses certain special powers that just make it easier for her to kill whoever she doesn’t like. But she’s her own woman, and I admire it. And I admire James for writing this difficult character in a way that elicits empathy and understanding.

In the end, while I loved Black Leopard, Red Wolf more, after a rocky start I realized I also deeply enjoy and appreciate Moon Witch, Spider King. It offers a different view not only on the events of the previous installment, the boy king, the vampires and all, but it also showcases a perspective rarely shown in literature: that of an old woman long past her prime, and yet still with a lot to say – and do. “This is woman work,” she says in the end, and I can’t help but grin and wait for the third installment.

Score: 8/10

I have received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

25 thoughts on “Marlon James, Moon Witch, Spider King (2022)

  1. So, another massive book that needed the hated hand of a good editor to bring the author off of their pedestal.

    In all seriousness, what has happened to editors in the last 2 decades? It is like they don’t exist anymore….

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think that to get on the market is one incredibly high threshold. But once you make a name for yourself, whatever you write will be treated like word of god. You made money once, you’ll do it twice, especially if you’re a critics’ darling. See Tchaikovsky or Sanderson for example 🤪 That said, Moon Witch is still a very good if flawed book. A skilled editor would have been highly beneficial, that is certainly true.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I don’t mind long books if the investment pays off. The problem is with the ones that are a diarrhea of meaninglessness 😶 But then, this can happen even to a short story!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds like a lot of fun, despite Bookstooge’s misgivings and your caveats. Still, I think with Bookstooge that much fiction could do with a *lot* of editorial pruning before it becomes overindulgent.

    On another tack I hope you’re fully recovered from your pestilential and travel ordeals and that your vacation was otherwise all you hoped for. Just glad you were allowed back!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It was fun, indeed, and even more – a bit of food for thought, too 🙂 But yes, were in absolute agreement here – bring back good editors and let them do what they do best: CUT! 😁

      Thanks, Chris! We’re out of COVID, thankfully no lingering side effects remain. Jetlag is a different beast, however, so we’re still getting there. But the visit was great, and very much needed after four years!!!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Welcome back! This book has been standing on my shelf for half a year now but after reading the whole Malazan series and the long disappointing final book of the Babel series I just can’t bring myself to pick up a hefty fantasy novel. I need to read a whole lot of short sf novels first. Also, i fear that I’ve forgotten many plot points from Black Leopard. The story was a bit confusing. Maybe in very general lines I remember it. Do you think that is enough for reading this one?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Jeroen!
      It’s a long novel and it feels like it. The beginning has nothing to do with the Black Leopard, Red Wolf storyline, and this gets picked up only in the last ~20%, so I think you should be safe enough without a reread. What this one does is give a lot more of background to the whole plot of BLRW – we finally see that the story there was in fact only a small part of something much bigger, and that’s pretty cool. We also see Tracker from someone else’s perspective, and as much as I love this obnoxious, snotty boy, it was fun seeing my thoughts on him confirmed 😉

      Like

  4. Not sure I’ll ever get around to this series (the page count scares me, lol) but I’m glad to hear this was a good follow up😁 Also curious about your travel adventures and getting the plague😬

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a heavy series, emotionally and topically, and from the reviews it seems it’s not for everyone. It definitely has plenty of trigger moments, with realistically described torture, child abuse etc. It’s also intentionally long, meandering, and confusing, like oral stories, so there’s that 😉 But if this sounds like something you can endure, James’s skill and imagination make it a special experience 😀

      I’ll write about my adventures soon, I promise! 😀

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  5. Both these books felt very long to me, as a reader, too. But I think I am attuned to that feeling because even when I am enjoying a book immensely, I am also simultaneously thinking about all the books that I am NOT reading even while engaged in the act of reading.

    To my way of thinking these long chapters about her earlier life are important to the narrative, not only because Tracker’s story was long and hard too (and we persevered through his entire story in the first volume) but because they invite readers to consider an alternative perspective, a worthwhile exercise in polarized times, (which perhaps feels more tedious, when one already exercises that skill daily) and as you’ve mentioned, so much of these legendary stories have been lost or neglected or forgotten, that filling at least some of the gaps is a way of reconciling with that erasure.

    As usual, it was a nice coincidence to find that I’ve actually read something you’ve read, instead of it simply being untouched on my TBR. 🙂 If you enjoy listening to writing/reading podcasts, I quite enjoy James’ podcast (available via his publisher’s site).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t feel the length with Black Leopard, Red Wolf that much – the story hooked me right from the first sentence, and Tracker’s early days were described on a dozen or so pages. I feel like the early chapters of Moon Witch were there to give a different perspective to the character somewhat villified in the BLRW – but I also feel that this was unnecessary, as we as readers would have grown to see her point of view anyway. Tracker’s POW does not exclude Sogolon’s.

      What I’m trying to say is that while I didn’t mind reading about the early years of Sogolon, I felt that these chapters would have benefited from some ruthless editing. They felt too long, and they seemed to be making the one point forever, andmost importantly for me, they felt laboured and stilted, as if James was slowly finding his footing in this different POW, especially compared to the later chapters. But that’s me 🙂

      I’d love to check out James’s podcast, thanks for the rec! (I didn’t even know he had one ;)).

      Indeed, great to find a book we both read and can discuss! As always, a pleasure! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s interesting! I view Tracker’s story the same way as you’ve described it, but I did have trouble fully engaging with the story, when I first picked up that first volume. Because I’m always keeping multiple books in my stack, I tend to assume that’s “on me” because sometimes I’m switching between rather disparate styles/themes. But your reply also reminded me that my reading them back-to-back likely influenced my experience too. The “slower” part, for me, I guess, was the initial immersion into the world, so after 700 pages of the first volume, I probably wasn’t even really thinking of the two books as being distinct anymore, yaknow? I mean, on one level, I know I’ve picked up another volume, but on another level, I’m just still reading and there’s another 700 pages! (Oooh, I think I actually just described the blur of my life! LOL)

        Here’s a link to the publisher’s page for the podcast, but of course you can simply search via any podcast app. I’ve been following form the beginning and, even though I’m not reading very many classics these days, I love their discussions because they have such different opinions (sometimes opposite and always passionate) and it’s never about “You’re wrong!” and always about temporarily inhabiting that other perspective and then discussing where their experiences differ. And he does discuss the writing of these volumes in brief moments through many of the episodes, just casually, not in a “sales pitch” kinda way so it definitely added to my enjoyment of these two books. FWIW, the podcast inspired me to read all the rest of his books too (I’d only read Seven Killings) and that was very interesting too.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh yes, I’m sure reading them back to back would have been a different experience – I’ve read Black Leopard, Red Wolf 2,5 years ago ;). I do know what you mean, binge reading a series gives one a bit more tolerance and a different outlook, I think. I also think that my experience was colored to an extent by the fact that I have less time for reading these days – and so I tend to be more impatient and more willing to judge a book by what it delivers in terms of quality in quantity ;).

          Many thanks for the link, I’ll be very curious to listen to this! 😀

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  6. I really enjoyed the first book and remember how treacherous and rough the reading experience was. Because it’s been so long, what holds me back from diving into this one is if it refers to events from the first book. Your review does make me wonder if all that backstory at the beginning might not be exactly what I’d need to not feel like I’ve forgotten too much about the witch. And with your praise, this will remain on my TBR and I look forward to trying it! Awesome review as always, Ola!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lashaan! FWIW, I think you can jump right in and most of the stuff will be once again explained (actually, better explained than in BLRW where it was all intentionally murky and more of a mood novel ;)). I’ll be looking forward to reading your thoughts on it!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Susy! 😀
      Yep, this series isn’t for everyone, it’s quite brutal and full of graphic violence, but I’m glad you liked my review! ☺️

      My vacation was indeed as far from boring as possible! I’ll write something more about it next week! 🤣

      Liked by 1 person

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