‘Moon Witch, Spider King’ by Marlon James: Witches, monsters and shapeshifters caught in the battle between kingdoms

In our Moon Witch, Spider King book review, we get into our feelings about womanhood and power with the life story of a 177-year-old witch.

There are some books that take a tiny bit of your soul when you read them. Whether that’s because they take a special focus to read, or because something sticks with you long after the last page, a nagging thought, an image, a scene, lingers in your head. For me, reading Moon Witch, Spider King has left me with a feeling.

As the second novel in Marlon James’ Dark Star trilogy, the narrative of Moon Witch, Spider King follows the character of Sogolon, the titular Moon Witch, who appeared in the first novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf. In that telling, the unreliable narrator of Tracker is searching for a mysterious missing boy, and encounters Sogolon along the way. While Tracker saw her as merely an irritating help and often adversary, Sogolon has lived 177 years before Tracker even knew of her.

Moon Witch, Spider King is a timeline of Sogolon’s life—a welcome change from the frenetic jumping around of the first novel. Blamed for the death of her mother in childbirth, Sogolon is kept captive in a termite mound by her father and brothers, who abuse and humiliate her. When she escapes, Sogolon moves through a brothel and then the house of a wealthy family and then on to the royal court, learning each step of the way that she cannot trust anyone, and that power is often only there for the people willing to grab it.

Sogolon is an antihero who will stay with me for a while. She is not good, because nothing in her life or world allows her to be. But she is incredibly resilient, and honest in a way that often feels brutal. She learns to fight at midnight street fights, and she teaches herself to read. One element of her story that I have kept chewing on is her sense of “usefulness.” When she is sold to the royal court, the princess sneers that Sogolon has no use, no skill or ability that gives her a purpose. Sogolon pushes back against the harmful idea that every part of a person must be useful.

What Sogolon does have is her “push,” or “wind (not wind),” a telekinetic ability that allows her to defend herself, and even explode her enemies from the inside. It is an ability that often evades her control, even as she becomes the Moon Witch, an assassin and avenger of wronged women who come to her for help.

Written entirely in dialect, where verbs and indefinite articles are frequently dropped, Moon Witch requires more than a casual amount of concentration to read. It is often difficult to differentiate dialogue and the characters speaking. It made me feel very much like Sogolon when she comes to a city, only to realize she does not know the word for a balcony as she sees one for the first time. But if you sink into the dialect, there is a flow and rhythm to it, like a magic spell that says, “Now you are in a different place—open your mind.”

moon witch spider king cover

Based on African folklore and history, I found the world of Moon Witch to be sumptuous, rich, and tactile even in the stink of rain forest mud and crowds of sweaty street fighters bathed in moonlight. Some cities Sogolon travels to have waterfalls crashing through them, some pull away from the ground and float into the clouds at night, some have turned into dilapidated ruins reclaimed by swamps. As someone now haunted by the ceiling-dwelling omoluzu demons and the malevolent Sangomin children, I can confirm that grotesque monsters abound just as much as they do in the first book. There are lion shapeshifters and water sprites, lightning-wielding vampires, fish so big that they could be islands. The fantastical elements underscore the deeply personal feeling of being in Sogolon’s skin, through her pain and joy and determination.

It wouldn’t be a Moon Witch, Spider King book review without a note of caution. Though not as drenched in gore as Black Leopard, violence and sexual assault is still ubiquitous. The sex is graphic and often left me feeling like I’d been pummeled by waves and washed up. There is so much description of genitals that it feels almost animalistic, which is quite possibly the intention.

James has said that the Dark Star trilogy is nonlinear, and so either novel can be read first without missing a crucial element. However, I encourage you to read Black Leopard first, if you can, not just for the enjoyment of seeing Tracker through the eyes of powerful, ageless Sogolon (“That man with a nose is just a boy”), but also for the feeling of a broadening perspective. Black Leopard on its own is sweeping fantasy, swords and magic and quests.

But in the context of Moon Witch, Spider King, the entirety of Tracker’s epic journey only begins within the last quarter of the book. Sogolon was there before it all, living life after life after life. Through Sogolon’s story, the world opens and widens. Sometimes what she reveals is painful and ugly—monsters and human atrocities, loss and betrayal. And sometimes Sogolon paints a picture of complicated beauty—loving unwanted children, remembering when all others forget, making an identity for yourself even in dire circumstances.

If you are looking for a quest wrapped up with a neat ending, then let this Moon Witch, Spider King book review be your warning that you may be disappointed. Perhaps it is because we do not know the full scope of the quest yet; perhaps the world will widen again in the third installment of the trilogy. Or, perhaps, there is no set point, and the story still has use without one. As Sogolon says, some people are not a destination; “Some people is journey.”

‘Moon Witch, Spider King’ was released February 15, 2022

Buy Moon Witch, Spider King by Marlon James from Penguin Random House, Bookshop.org, Book Depository, or Amazon. You can also add it to your Goodreads list.

This article was written by Subjectify contributor Megan Lank. Look for more recommendations on our books page.