Black leopard, red wolf, the first book in Marlon James’ Dark Star Trilogy, was one of those novels that broke my brain in the best possible way. Heavy and relentless, it systematically dismantled everything I thought I knew about epic fantasy.
With the sequel, Moon Witch, Spider King, James once again shattered my expectations. As impressed as I was with Tracker’s story in the first book, Sogolon’s Tale makes for a rare sequel that’s better than the first.
The novel follows the travels and labors of Sogolon, the aforementioned Moon Witch whom Tracker was in frequent conflict with in his novel. Part of his story tells that of Tracker, Rashomon-style, but a lot of it is his own life, a life that begins with oppression and ends with hard-earned day parole. James divides Sogolon’s journey into five parts, during which we witness the growth of his power, both physical and magical. She trains as a fighter and is smart and observant enough to outwit her enemies. Add to that her “wind (not the wind)” – a force she never fully controls but is there when she needs it most – and you have a very formidable woman.
She begins her life as an unnamed child imprisoned and tortured by her brothers. A bloody escape delivers her to a brothel and then into the clutches of scheming nobles. There she becomes “the girl”, still abused but able to taste just enough power to know that she loves him, that she needs him. Another escape, this time in the arms of a shapeshifting lover and a host of children. As she takes control of more of her life, she also claims a name, Sogolon, after the mother she never knew. An unspeakable tragedy wrought by the Aesi and the titular Spider King – the book’s big baddies – drives her away from everything she loves. Deep in the forest, she is reborn as Moon Witch, an entity as much myth as truth. Women from everywhere venture into his domain to exact revenge on men who wield their power like a knife or a chain. By the time the Moon Witch joins Tracker’s crew, she has lived too long and borne the brunt of men’s violence for too long.
For me, the biggest challenge of Black leopard, red wolf waded through Tracker’s intense and unflinching misogyny. In Moon Witch, Spider King, Sogolon has even less patience than me, and often criticizes him for reducing women to “witch or bitch”. For him, a witch is a cruel creature that deserves to be wiped off the face of the earth. For women who call Sogolon the Witch of the Moon, however, the term is synonymous with reverence and respect. Whether you see her as a force for good or evil, a witch is ultimately a woman with power. For the patriarchy, that makes her a problem; for those oppressed by the patriarchy, that makes her a source of pride.
I went in Moon Witch, Spider King believing he understood who was playing what role, but this information was based on Tracker’s version of events. It quickly becomes clear that there is much more to Sogolon than Tracker has ever bothered to see. She sees him for what he really is: an irritable and recalcitrant child. Tracker thinks he’s smart enough to see the strings being pulled behind the scenes; Sologon not only sees the ropes but also the people who pull them, the people who installed the ropes, and the people who weaved the ropes in the first place.
Told in a compelling dialect that pokes fun at the very notion of Standard American English grammatical rules, Moon Witch, Spider King is a jaw-dropping book, which works just as well as a sequel as it does. James plays with the common traits of epic fantasies, offering readers a journey with no destination, no ending, and characters that directly oppose the traditional hero’s journey. Where the first book reveled in the brutality of humanity, the second is about resistance. No matter what hits Sogolon, she always picks herself up, retrieves her fallen weapon, and dives back into the fray.
Like its predecessor, this is a novel that begs to be read in one sitting – thinking it’s nearly impossible to do so without coming out the other side feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. But make no mistake, this series is absolutely unmissable.
Alex Brown is a librarian, Ignyte award-winning speculative fiction critic and author of two non-fiction history books, Hidden History of Napa Valley and Napa Valley Lost Restaurants.