“One night I was in the dream jungle” (p. 1). So begins Moon Witch, Spider King, the sequel to Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf. The story of Moon Witch, Spider King takes us two hundred years before the events of its predecessor and is told from the perspective of the witch Sogolon (one of the members of the unwieldy “fellowship” that was cobbled together to track down a missing child, a quest that was the focal point of Black Leopard, Red Wolf).
In my review of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, I had argued that the book departed from some of the canons of the genre by steadfastly denying its readers “refuge in meaning.” While centring itself around the classic epic fantasy narrative devices of the quest and the battle, Black Leopard, Red Wolf also undermined those devices by leaving the reader wondering, at the end, what the quest really was for, and (relatedly) what the point of any of the battles was. It accomplished this through its unreliable narrator, Tracker, and its overarching narrative framework: an interrogation of Tracker by his captor. This meant that as the story of Black Leopard, Red Wolf unfolded in the course of Tracker’s interrogation, it unfolded through dissimulation, evasiveness, and—at times—outright lying, with very little assistance being offered to the reader in separating the lies, the rationalisations, and (such as it might be) the truth.
In this review, I will argue that in Moon Witch, Spider King, Marlon James carries forward the conversation with the genre of epic fantasy, which he began in Black Leopard, Red Wolf. At this point, a detailed summary of Moon Witch, Spider King—which will nonetheless only skim the surface of a book that is densely and bewilderingly populated by people, magical creatures, places, and events—is necessary to understand the manner in which he does so, and what this new novel attempts to accomplish.
Subjected to abuse and violence by her three brothers, the child Sogolon flees to the Northern Kingdom city of Kongor. A series of events eventually sees her reach the capital city of Fasisi, where she is given as a “gift” to the Princess Emini. As Fasisi tradition mandates that the son of the King’s sister will succeed to the throne, Princess Emini already wields considerable power in the kingdom. However, thanks to the machinations of the Aesi—the King’s enigmatic advisor—it is revealed that Princess Emini’s husband is barren, and that she has been having sex with multiple other men in an effort to conceive an heir. This allows Emini’s brother—the Prince Likud—to seize power upon the King’s death, and exile the Princess and her retinue (which includes Sogolon) to a nunnery. En route to the nunnery, the Princess’s convoy is attacked by the Aesi’s Sangomin (child-like magical creatures whose primary role is hunting out witches for the Aesi), and everyone but Sogolon is slain. Sogolon escapes thanks to a magical force that she calls “the wind (not wind)” and has been honing for a while; it allows her to destroy her Sangomin attackers.
Sogolon is eventually found by a scouting party sent by Prince Likud (now the King, Kwash Moki). One of the scouts’ number is a man called Keme. Keme had earlier escorted Sogolon and her previous master to Fasisi, and there had been the beginnings of an attraction between the two of them. However, the Aesi—using his magical powers—has wiped the memories of the King’s retinue, and consequently, although Sogolon remembers Keme, he does not remember her. Nonetheless, upon their return to Fasisi, he takes her in and she eventually becomes his second wife. When Sogolon first gives birth, however, it is to two human children and two lion cubs. It turns out that Keme is a shape-shifter, who has always kept his lion side suppressed because of both the kingdom’s discriminatory policies against shape-shifters and his first wife’s disapproval. (Indeed, his first wife has been killing off the lion children that she has conceived.) No stranger to being outcast, Sogolon encourages Keme to give free rein to his lion-side, and they bring up their human and lion children together. Eventually, Sogolon is tracked down by the Aesi, who has always been on the lookout for her—since she is the only person resistant to his memory-altering powers. In the battle that follows, Sogolon uses her wind (not wind) to kill the Aesi, but the Aesi has, by then, already slain one of her children.
Sogolon disappears from Fasisi, and spends the next hundred and seventy years in self-exile in a jungle called the Sunk City, kept alive and ageless by her magic and her rage. There, she is tracked down by a water sprite called Popele, and Sogolon’s own great-great-granddaughter, Nsaka Ne Vampi. Popele and Nsaka reveal to Sogolon that the Aesi is reborn every eight years after his death—and, at the age of twelve, is reincarnated back into his Aesi form. A hundred and seventy years ago, Sogolon had learned of the Aesi’s return, and had abandoned her family to track him down and kill him while he was still a boy, thus ending the cycle of reincarnation. However, she had failed—primarily because of interference by other water sprites—and her own memory was wiped. During the centuries of her self-exile, the Northern Kingdom has plunged further and further into degradation, with a succession of worse Kings, ruling under the malign influence of the Aesi. Popele and Nsaka now ask Sogolon to help them to set things right by restoring a “true King” to the Northern Kingdom: this is the future son of the present King’s sister, who—under ancient tradition—is the legitimate heir to the throne (a tradition that has been eclipsed since the banishment and murder of Princess Emini, after which every King’s sister has been banished to the nunnery). Driven by a desire for revenge over the Aesi for the life that was taken from her, Sogolon agrees. Soon after the Princess conceives, however, her child—who is in the safekeeping of the adviser Basu Famunguru—is kidnapped in a violent raid in which Basu and his entire family is massacred. A “fellowship” is then put together to find and rescue the royal child, so that the King in the North can eventually be restored. This is where the timelines of Moon Witch, Spider King and Black Leopard, Red Wolf now intersect. The last twenty percent of the sequel recounts—in a somewhat compressed style—the quest that was at the heart of the first book, only this time, of course, from Sogolon’s perspective.
Much like Black Leopad, Red Wolf, then, Moon Witch, Spider King denies us refuge in meaning, but it does so in a different way. Except where her memory has been wiped—and where, therefore, she depends upon the written account of a griot to fill in the gaps. Sogolon’s account is linear, clear, and—evidently, as Gary K. Wolfe points out—at least a more reliable representation of reality than Tracker’s. In Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the very purpose of the quest—and the significance of the kidnapped boy—was murky almost throughout the entirety of the story. In Moon Witch, Spider King, on the other hand, the centuries-long history that brings us up to the “fellowship” and its quest is set out. The stakes, therefore, are outlined starkly. We no longer have any doubts about what the quest is for.
Knowing what the quest is for, however, does not invest it with meaning: indeed, quite the opposite. After all, if the primary antagonist—the Aesi—is a classic fantasy villain, exuding cruelty, malice, and competence in spades, the “other side” is unlikeable at best, and repellent at worst (an observation also made by Alex Brown in this review). During her initial stay at Fasisi, Sogolon is thoroughly mistreated by Princess Emini—humiliated, insulted, and assaulted with frequency. Her treatment improves marginally only when the Princess is herself stripped of all her power and reduced to nothingness; but it is a relative nothingness, as even in her lowest moment, the class barriers between the Princess and Sogolon shake momentarily, but do not fall.
Sogolon does not forget. This is why, when Popele and Nsaka come to recruit her in their quest to “restore the true King in the North,” Sogolon systematically resists every attempt to clothe this quest in lineaments of grandeur, nobility, or any meaning whatsoever. Popele and Nsaka try. They try with all the eloquence that we have come to expect from the genre:
“You was there when Kwash Moki disrupt the line of kings and drive this whole North into decadence and wickedness. Not even Liongo the Good was good enough to stop it. Every King destroy his older sister or send her to Mantha as a nun. They been doing it so long they don’t even know why. Kwash Moki’s father was the last true King to sit on the throne in Fasisi, and nothing in the North going to be good until a true King rule again.” (p. 426)
Sogolon’s response to such exhortations—not delivered immediately, but a while later—is both pithy and comprehensive:
Fuck your kings and fuck all gods. (p. 452)
Of course, crusty protagonists who initially resist being drawn into the glory and grandeur of a quest (“You fool, we can still change the world…” [p. 426]) are themselves a familiar fantasy trope. In general, however, their resistance serves primarily as a foil that sharpens the stakes or helps the main character achieve greater self-realisation. By the end of the story, the crustiness has (for the most part) given way to active participation and implied acceptance of the legitimacy of the quest. This is emphatically something that Marlon James does not allow to happen. Not only is Sogolon clear that there is nothing particularly moral about replacing one power structure by another; she exhibits acute self-awareness in resisting sanctuary even in her own motivations. There is nothing particularly noble or even significant about revenge:
Everything annoy me, everything aggravate me, and all things work together to make me bitter. All that time away helping the King Sister breed another man king who would be just as bad as all the others before cause me to lose the name of Moon Witch. (p. 497)
Here, Sogolon blurs the personal and the political, and denies legitimacy to both. The refuge of meaning is available neither in the novel’s overarching quest, nor in Sogolon’s own character arc.
This does, however, trigger the question: why? Is Moon Witch, Spider King simply an exercise in nihilism, a “grimdark” fantasy of rejection? I don’t think so. A careful read reveals that from the beginning to the end, Moon Witch, Spider King is in constant conversation with the idea of power. It is no coincidence that the story begins with abuse—abuse of the most personal and intimate kind, abuse of the power that an elder (male) sibling holds over a younger (female) sibling, especially in the absence of parental authority. (Much like its predecessor, Moon Witch, Spider King ought to come with multiple trigger warnings for rape, graphic death, and extreme violence.) The theme of power—and its abuse—occurs and recurs: in relationships within the royal palace, in Fasisi’s treatment of shape-shifters, and perhaps most starkly in the seemingly utopian arboreal Kingdom of Dolingo, where we learn—in echoes of Omelas—that the perfectly automated realm is run by invisible slave labour. Here is the point: in the world that James has set up, the political structures are deeply, institutionally unjust. And, as long as the quest takes place within those existing structures, it deserves to be treated with the same kind of contempt—and indifference—as those structures themselves. Self-aware as ever, Sogolon notes, for instance, that:
And maybe there is something to restoring the line of kings, other than just one king taking power from another because power is there to take. I am a woman of the world and in the world, so why wouldn’t I want justice, or the order that men keep confusing with justice? But justice don’t consume you (p. 518–9, emphasis added).
Here is where there is a larger conversation with—and indeed, indictment of—the genre. At one level, it is evident that James is talking back to—and against—the book that kicked it all off, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1955). The repeated references—occasionally snarky ones—to “the fellowship” make that clear (“Some fellowship this is” [p. 581]). Now, it is worth remembering that, at its heart, The Lord of the Rings is all about the defeat of an evil empire, and his replacement by a benign kingdom—but a kingdom nonetheless. To this, Moon Witch, Spider King seems to answer: “how can you be so naïve as to believe that there is the possibility of justice within the fundamentally unjust political structure of an absolute monarchy?” When you think about it, was not the entire quest to destroy the One Ring in fact a quest to destroy an evil King and replace him with a good King—while leaving kingship, and all that it entails, intact? Moon Witch, Spider King is a rejection of that entire narrative framework, along with the suggestion that a quest of that kind would ever be truly meaningful.
But the indictment is not simply an indictment of Tolkien. In the six decades since The Lord of the Rings, fantasy has undoubtedly progressed from Tolkien’s very white, very male paradigm. But it is also undeniable that for all the genre’s advances, certain political structures—kingdoms and empires—continue to dominate contemporary fantasy. And the question that Moon Witch, Spider King poses—often uncomfortably—is whether, once that initial choice has been made, there is any real meaning, or salience, to actions that do not seek to dismantle those structures themselves—in other words, to actions that preserve the forms of power intact, while replacing or substituting those who wield power.
This reading of the novel, I suggest, also explains another crucial authorial choice: that of language. The language of Moon Witch, Spider King is reminiscent of its classic predecessor, Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952): choppy, staccato, and outrightly ungrammatical. In short, it is alienating, and deliberately so (“ … shuns easy-reading propulsion,” says The Guardian; “unconjugated verbs,” complains The New York Times). And the reason for this, I suggest, is located within Bertolt Brecht’s well-known idea of the “distancing effect” in theatre. Brecht actively worked to distance his audience from the play’s characters, to prevent psychological identification, in order that the structures of power that underpinned the characters’ world could be seen clearly, and seen whole. There is something similar at work in Moon Witch, Spider King: we are prevented from immersing ourselves in the world that James has built because, when you really think about it, there is something repugnant about immersion-to-the-point-of-identification in a world that is built upon unjust power structures.
This is, once again, at odds with many works of contemporary fantasy, where lyrical prose and epic atmosphere aestheticizes the world, and—through immersion—allows readers intense emotional involvement with actions (and characters) that would be entirely repellent were the aesthetic veneer to be stripped away: a modern-day version of catharsis through tragedy, so to speak. With James, however, this consolation is entirely off the table. Previously, in responding to a question about violence in his books, James had argued that the whole point of writing violence was to make the reader feel uncomfortable and repelled (because violence is uncomfortable and repellent). The argument, I think, extends to Moon Witch, Spider King as a whole: in the world that James has set up (a world that—at least as far as power structures go—is very similar to many works of contemporary fantasy), the only moral response is alienation. And that is precisely the response that Moon Witch, Spider King attempts to elicit from the reader—and, in my case at least, succeeded in eliciting.
Ultimately, we come back to this basic question: is Moon Witch, Spider King entirely nihilistic, just a fantasy of rejection? I do not think so: because for all of this, James does not deny his characters the possibility of joy, and particularly joy in each other. The relationship between Sogolon and Keme—for the brief while that it features in the book—is the most moving and humane part of the story. Keme’s acceptance of his shape-shifting—and Sogolon’s role in allowing him to be at peace with himself—is a reminder of just how many things there are in heaven and earth that cannot be contained in any philosophy of coercion and violence. While it denies us refuge in meaning, the triumph of Moon Witch, Spider King lies in the fact that at the same time it does not deny us the possibility of meaning. James’s kind of meaning is to be sure fragile, temporary, and hard-won—but that is precisely why it means anything at all.