During the course of more than 600 pages, Sogolon lives a dozen lives and is haunted by a hundred ghosts. 'Let us make this quick,' Sogolon often said, just as I was trying to catch my breath. The book is told in the syntax of a dialect: Verbs are left unconjugated, and words are shuffled around. I reread sections to try to understand who was speaking and what was being said. Then a line of pure poetry would stop me in my tracks ... I have other gripes. The flow of bodily fluids is still relentless, and there is to my mind an excess of crudely referenced orifices and thrusting male genitalia. Rape is again ubiquitous and graphic ... The cities of this world rival any creation of Italo Calvino ... James’s imagination is vast and fiery, and his numerous fight scenes are heart-pumping and vivid. But what has stayed with me are his more subtle observations on the human condition, how people don’t run away from terrible situations only because they don’t know where else to go, how love is like fear, grief is like fury and revenge can never be as satisfying as you imagine ... A reader must enter the Dark Star trilogy of her own volition, with eyes wide open. But the Moon Witch lit my path and showed me how a woman might navigate this dangerous, remarkable world.
Marlon James’s Moon Witch, Spider King, the second book in his Dark Star trilogy, is both a continuation of the narrative that began with Black Leopard, Red Wolf in 2019 and an outstanding retelling of that story that expands on what the first book started. While shifting points of view, James...enriches the existing story, and the result is a book that simultaneously celebrates African mythology while creating its own ... an impressive amalgamation of folklore, magic, and mythology that weaves together several narratives, but the element that makes it memorable is James’s prose. As lush as the forests he describes, the prose in this novel is simple, rhythmic, and strangely elegant. This is writing with a kind of cadence that turns every line into a poem, every story a tale told around a fire, every event an occurrence deserving of attention ... Retelling the same story from a different perspective is not a gimmick here; it is a successful literary device that leads to a gripping narrative ... This is a novel about the power of grief where anger is a driving force, and in that, despite all its fantastical elements, it is a deeply human story.
Moon Witch, Spider King is one part violent coming-of-age novel and another part brutalist revenge novel. The world created in these pages is wonderful, well-imagined and in some ways very close to reality ... This is a beautiful novel with well-developed characters enmeshed in a very real and terrifying fight, not only for their lives but also against a cycle of life that repeats from generation to generation ... It also feels like a novel that is two novels. The first, the violent coming-of-age portion ... It’s impressive how much world-building and character development James manages in these pages ... The second half of the novel — the brutalist revenge portion — feels a little like James is working toward the events of Black Panther, Red Wolf. The quick dialogue of the first half begins to sputter a bit as the mission takes shape. And though there is a goal to be achieved, much of the urgency often feels sapped by overlong discussions between the characters. In essence, the second half of Moon Witch, Spider King reads a lot like a prequel to “Black Panther, Red Wolf.” But like any good prequel, it can be read on its own.
James once again shattered my expectations. As awed as I was by Tracker's story in the first book, Sogolon's tale makes this a rare sequel that is better than the first ... Told in a mesmerizing dialect that scoffs at the very notion of Standard American English grammatical rules, Moon Witch, Spider King is a breathtaking book, one that functions as well as a standalone as it does a sequel. James toys with the common traits of epic fantasies, giving readers a journey with no destination, an ending that isn't an ending, and characters who stand in direct opposition to the traditional hero's journey. Where the first book reveled in the brutality of humankind, the second is about resistance. No matter what strikes Sogolon, she always stands back up, collects her fallen weapon, and dives back into the fray ... Like its predecessor, this is a novel that begs to be read in one sitting — though it is nearly impossible to do so without coming out the other end feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. But make no mistake, this series is absolutely a must-read.
Mr. James’s epic takes place in a fantastical precolonial Africa and it draws deeply on the stories preserved from the oral traditions of kingdoms in present-day Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Ghana and elsewhere. Because these empires antedate the influence of Christianity or Islam, their visions of the world, from cosmologies to sexual mores, are wildly unfamiliar, and that scintillating strangeness infuses the books’ sprawling cast of monsters, magicians and mercenaries ... Mr. James is such a ferociously powerful and fast-paced storyteller that one rarely has time to worry about the grander scheme of the plot. Although the book covers a huge span of time, no grass grows between the action. Galvanized by a vernacular writing style modeled on the oral tradition of African griots, the scenes are ribald, declamatory and quick to confrontation. Events are so crazed and swirling they become almost hallucinatory. What the larger picture amounts to, when considered from a distance, remains something of a puzzle ... It is this trilogy’s prodigious passions, and not any obvious narrative purpose, that make it so gripping.
The best way to experience James’ trilogy is as an African Game of Thrones. One of the pleasures of genre fiction is the way authors openly converse with the books of their predecessors, expanding the reader’s understanding of whole field and what it can do. To read one book is to engage with many ... James’ Dark Star trilogy lands solidly in the grimdark camp, but the publication of Moon Witch, Spider King makes his contribution to the genre even more evident ... This novel’s prose style, inspired by the grammar of African languages, has an intoxicating swagger and energy ... This novel, which is about what it means to be a woman in James’ invented world, captures in the form of its plot the experience of having one’s life dominated by other people’s agendas and becoming trapped in the incessant cycles of domesticity ... Martin invigorated the epic fantasy genre by liberating it from the customary, quasi-Christian good vs. evil storyline, the Dark Star trilogy leaves what has actually happened in doubt, making it a function of who does the telling. This is a tricky strategy when writing fiction set in a world so fundamentally unlike the one we know. Black Leopard, Red Wolf and Moon Witch, Spider King can be disorienting and confusing books whose narratives jump around in time and treat such bizarre phenomenon as lightning vampires as if they need little explanation. Their difficulty will (and has) put off some readers, but for those who persevere, the two novels show how who you are shapes the kind of story you tell about the world around you, a world made new with every teller.
Readers who might have been put off by the occasionally swaggering violence and the brutality of the protagonist in Black Leopard, Red Wolf might well find such a different sort of fantasy something of a relief, though Moon Witch, Spider King isn’t without its own episodes of violence...But the violence here seems more integral to the plot, less performative, and more a function of Sogolon’s character; we understand the pain that leads to her powers. Many of the more effective apparitions from the first novel return ... less involved in spectacle than in character, largely because Sogolon turns out to be a much fuller, more expansive character than Tracker ever was. Even her narrative voice tends toward a kind of gentle patois, with its streamlined verbs, as opposed to Tracker’s more straightforward syntax ... feels like a more generous and inclusive novel than its predecessor, with much higher stakes and some very promising doorways for the third volume.
James is more subtle and substantive than he is sometimes given credit for, and the trolls, vampires and magic of this series are far more than mere genre furniture. They’re best read as part of the occultist tradition that defines magic as a technology of will—in this case, the malignant will to power ... while the long, sonorous paragraphs of description and exposition will not be to every reader’s taste, their sensationalism speaks seriously to our present condition. The prose itself is remarkably consistent and controlled. James never forgets in either book that his protagonists are speaking out, under interrogation, pleading in defence of their lives. Both books in this series share the same characteristic of impassioned rhetoric. There is no simple allegory here, but rather a general sense of nightmarish decay that makes these books seem very modern and persuasive. The series is also an attempt from the diaspora to give the Matter of Africa the same weight as other legendariums, drawing eclectically from many different storytelling traditions all over the continent. The third panel of the triptych will decide whether we regard Dark Star as something more than a weighty entertainment. On the basis of this second volume, the omens are good.
Moon Witch, Spider King, the second instalment, dials down, just a touch, the gut-clenching grotesquerie that characterised the first book. For the most part, it’s an origin story fleshing out Sogolon’s emotional stake in the search for a dead child with which the earlier book began. The action unfolds as a kind of nomadic picaresque ... Like its predecessor, this is a long book, scaled to satisfy the genre’s typically pig-out portions, yet with an uncompromising prose style that shuns easy-reading propulsion ... The difficulty lies more in the book’s enviable confidence that we’ll be able to grasp, say, who’s speaking without the narrative making it crystal-clear, or James’s relaxed attitude to (for example) using three different names for the same character in a single paragraph ... The result is that a chronic fog, strobe-lit by regular flashes of sex and violence, overlays the big picture weirdness, tricky enough in itself to keep track of, with dreams and occasional interludes in an airborne city mixing with a ground-floor reality that isn’t exactly humdrum, to say the least ... anyone who stays the course through all this probably won’t want to miss the final instalment to come: a swerve into horror, apparently.
With Moon Witch, Spider King, the 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 ... In this second instalment, 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 ... As gripping as the novel is, it’s a long and tough read. Sometimes it even feels confrontational ... 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 instalment, if you have the stomach and staying power to seek it out.
More than 1,200 pages into James’ trilogy, one thing is clear: Moon Witch, Spider King is even better than Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Unlike Tracker’s fragmentary and impressionistic narrative, Sogolon’s story is mostly linear and rich with detail, filling in many of the gaps introduced by Tracker in regards to the trilogy’s plot, settings, and characters. And while Black Leopard, Red Wolf’s confounding quest in the wilderness didn’t exactly live up to the billing of 'an African Game of Thrones,' Moon Witch, Spider King’s palace intrigue certainly does ... And here’s where Moon Witch, Spider King gets really, really good. Tracker rarely took the time to describe James’ fantastical cities, but Sogolon notices everything in the capital of Fasisi ... while Sogolon’s story isn’t as bloody or breathlessly paced as Tracker’s, it’s more suspenseful and rewarding because of the way time moves forward ... wildly inventive, genre-defining works of fiction on the level of The Lord Of The Rings and the Broken Earth trilogy that deserve to be studied, dissected, and argued over.
... a medieval feast of dazzling fantasy. It's vulgar and vivacious, big and brutal, full of rivaling monarchies, Machiavellian ministers, feuding families, revengeful prostitutes, evil priests and a century-old witch, all vying for power in James' extraordinarily imagined African kingdoms ... Sogolon's voice is so engaging that it invites readers into this novel with more ease and generosity than Tracker in the first book ... I remain convinced that James is rebuilding the genre, but I'm no longer sure he's demolishing the entire temple.
When Sogolon is moving, Moon Witch, Spider King comes spectacularly alive. James choreographs fight scenes that make Quentin Tarantino’s movies feel comparatively tranquil. And there’s a catalogue of diabolically ingenious creatures creeping along the ceilings, jumping from behind trees and even reaching through fourth-dimension portals to keep the pages simmering with terror ... In its structure and pacing, though, this is a different novel from Black Leopard, Red Wolf. The previous book was certainly difficult, but it was a grand quest, charging forward with inexorable momentum, luxuriating in its vast length to unspool a series of adventures ... Moon Witch, Spider King, on the other hand, is the confession of someone nursing a horrible anger and a consuming sorrow. As such, the story sometimes skids into pits of rumination that increase the narrative’s persistent fogginess. Those challenges are exacerbated by the special lexicon of this series, which involves so many fantastical geographical references and cryptozoological figures that I began to worry that the Aesi had erased my mind, too ... only readers who very recently read Black Leopard, Red Wolf will have a snowball’s chance in Mantha of following this new volume’s final section, which offers a highly compressed, bafflingly elliptical retelling of the search for the lost boy ... Sogolon is a thrilling, haunting heroine; in fact, she’s 'the baddest woman alive.' And when she says, 'Every connection reminded me of loneliness,' my heart aches for her to be free from such sorrow. But I also wish she could be loosened a bit from the dense thicket of this novel.
...as consistently gripping as the first ... Moon Witch, Spider King spins a rich narrative web around Sogolon—the titular Moon Witch who appears in the previous book ... even before she got her own book, Sogolon was one of this world’s most fascinating characters whose painful development is a bloody, brutal example of the transformative magic of fiction ... Moon Witch is by and large a coming-of-age story filled with perplexing politics and arcane worldbuilding. As others have said before me, it’s reductive to compare James’ fantasy work in this way. He isn’t borrowing from famous parts of history, or drawing parallels, or using heaping spoonfuls of metaphor—he’s creating something non-standard and non-compliant and non-traditional on his own ... James’ prose is equal parts hostile and magnetic and presents a sort of cognitive challenge for the passive reader ... It’s all arguably a transformative use of violence, if you’re prepared to sit in for the long haul to see how this particular recipe of fictional alchemy pans out. But as with life, even the bleakest moments in the book are imbued with James’ subtle, wry humor that rekindles very necessary moments of fire and humanity in its suffering characters ... exhilerating and exhausting ... best digested as a marathon rather than a sprint.
James, who won the Man Booker Prize in 2015 for A Brief History of Seven Killings, is one of the finest writers at work today, and Moon Witch, Spider King is a complex, enthralling novel. It is also utterly uncompromising, a book which the reader must meet on its own terms ... we are fully immersed in Sogolon’s consciousness, her perspective, her language ... As a result, it is impossible to rest comfortably in the correctness of her decisions. That discomfort is at the core of the novel’s success.
James extends the panoramic violence that characterizes his fiction ... The rub between volumes isn’t repetition but recalibration; readers assemble understanding in the reverberation between narratives ... The Dark Star trilogy is a set of stimulating and disorienting rumors. The story of a single missing boy becomes a snake-eating-its-tail narrative, when every individual’s perspective is worth exploring.
If Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a penciled comic panel, Moon Witch, Spider King is the version rendered by James the inker: the geography, myth, magic, and people of this epic setting are revisited to add shading and detail in a recursive procedure that results in a vibrant tapestry begging for infinite return trips.
If book one centers on the nature of storytelling, this volume turns its focus to memory, archiving, and history as Sogolon works to correct the record. The two stories run parallel to and contradict each other, and James mines the distance between them to raise powerful questions about whether truth is possible when the power of storytelling is available only to a few. This is a tour de force.
Stories as ambitiously made up as this aren't expected to so intensely engage the shifting natures of truth and reality. This one does ... This second volume in a projected trilogy set in a boldly imagined, opulently apportioned ancient Africa shows that the Man Booker Prize–winning novelist is building something deeper and more profoundly innovative within the swords-and-sorcery genre ... This novel [is] told in the main character’s patois, which is as witty, richly textured, and musically captivating as the story it tells ... So much is densely packed into this narrative that it sometimes threatens to leave the reader gasping for breath, especially at the start. But once Sogolon’s painful, tumultuous initiation ends and the Moon Witch’s legend takes hold, James’ tale picks up speed with beautifully orchestrated (and ferociously violent) set pieces and language both vivid and poetic. The second part of this trilogy is darker and, in many ways, more moving than its predecessor.