Moon Witch, Spider King (The Dark Star trilogy #2) by Marlon James #BookReview #Fantasy

The front cover for Moon Witch Spider King. The cover is a jumble of facial features, feathers and fauna, which make a woman's face on the right and a man's on the left.

Moon Witch, Spider King (The Dark Star trilogy #2) by Marlon James

Hamish Hamilton, hardback, £20

Reviewed by Ian Green

The front cover for Moon Witch Spider King. The cover is a jumble of facial features, feathers and fauna, which make a woman's face on the right and a man's on the left.

The Dark Star trilogy opened with the bombastic and bloody Black Leopard, Red Wolf– the brutal and braggadocious Tracker telling the mysterious Inquisitor of his quest to find a dead boy. The first book was dense and violent, twisting its way through action and intrigue. The world James has created is deep, and the language unflinchingly convoluted, with all the contradictions and tics one might expect of a narrated tale. The second book in the series, Moon Witch, Spider King, takes a fascinatingly oblique angle at the series structure. Here, rather than following Tracker and his moods and ambition, we follow Sogolon, who in the first book was both ally and adversary to Tracker. Where Tracker’s violent tendencies and sexual appetites were both flaunted and revelled in, Sogolon slowly reveals a much different narrator- she has power and her own history weighing her down. Re-telling the same tale from a new viewpoint could have been stale, but our story here spans Sogolon’s entire life, from a girl with no name living in the dirt all the way to her final incarnation as the titular Moon Witch, granting wishes to downtrodden women, harnessing magics that are never quite defined.

The book takes its time- there is no easy gratification, and Sogolon herself is a frustratingly inactive protagonist for long tranches of the story. There are segments dedicated to family life and courtly drama. But all of these are disconnected save for the tenuous thread that is Sogolon’s life- over a hundred years, we come to slowly understand her burning hatred for the Aesi, the chancellor of the king, and come to see all Sogolon has lost. As with Black Leopard, Red Wolf, certainly there is a core adventure at play- a child must be rescued to return sanity to the northern kingdom and prevent war. Yet all involved seem to understand this simplistic quest will never have the results some may hope. Beyond this adventure, the linear narrative of this second instalment is easier to follow than Tracker’s disjointed tales in the first volume, and Sogolon’s eye on the movement of power gives us a wider context of the political and cultural landscape. When Sogolon’s narrative catches up to the adventure of the first book, there is a slight disappointment perhaps to those not reading the series consecutively-seeing another eye on Tracker’s tale would perhaps impact more if the details of his story were not a book ago, and separated by the reader by four hundred pages (and a hundred or more years) of narrative.

The first book was neck-deep in sex and violence, and this second instalment offers more of the same but with a protagonist whose gaze has a different maturity. An evolution of the world James has created, Moon Witch, Spider King will frustrate and delight but will reward those who stay the course. A lavish world, luscious prose, and the promise of blood-soaked vengeance- what more could you wish for?