Author: Marlon James
Title: Moon Witch, Spider King
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.
I have received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.