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. Unwieldy and unrelenting, 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 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.
The novel follows the travels and travails of Sogolon, the aforementioned Moon Witch that Tracker frequently conflicted with in his novel. Some of her story retells Tracker's, Rashomon-style, but much of it is her own life, one that begins with oppression and ends with a hard-won semi-freedom. James sections Sogolon's journey into five parts, throughout which we witness the growth of her 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 wind)" — a force she never fully controls but one that is there when she needs it the most — and you have a very formidable woman.
She begins life as a nameless 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 she likes it, needs it. Another escape, this time into the arms of a shapeshifting lover and a gaggle of children. As she takes control over more of her life, she also claims a name, Sogolon, after the mother she never knew. An unspeakable tragedy brought about by the Aesi and the titular Spider King — the Big Bads of the book — drives her away from everything she loves. Deep in the forest, she is reborn as the Moon Witch, an entity as much myth as truth. Women from all over venture into her domain seeking revenge against men who brandish their power like a knife or a chain. By the time the Moon Witch joins up with Tracker's crew, she has lived too long and born the weight of men's violence for too long.
For me, the biggest challenge of Black Leopard, Red Wolf was wading through Tracker's intense, unmitigated misogyny. In Moon Witch, Spider King, Sogolon has even less patience for it than I did, and often takes him to task for reducing women down to "witch or bitch." To him, a witch is a cruel creature that deserves to be wiped from the face of the earth. To the women who call Sogolon the Moon Witch, however, the term is one of reverence and respect. Whether you see her as a force for good or evil, ultimately a witch is a woman with power. To the patriarchy, that makes her a problem; to those oppressed by the patriarchy, it makes her a source of pride.
I went into Moon Witch, Spider King believing I understood who was playing which role, but that information was based on Tracker's version of events. It quickly becomes clear that there is far more to Sogolon than Tracker ever bothered to see. She sees him for what he really is: a petulant, recalcitrant child. Tracker thinks he's clever enough to see the ropes 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 wove the ropes in the first place.
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.
Alex Brown is a librarian, an Ignyte award-winning speculative fiction critic, and the author of two nonfiction history books, Hidden History of Napa Valley and Lost Restaurants of Napa Valley.