Marlon James is taking a structural queue from Rashomon in his Dark Star trilogy, an epic fantasy set in a fictionalized version of ancient Africa filled with mythical creatures, witchcraft, and towering city-states. All three books circle around the same incident—the disappearance, search for, and death of an unnamed boy—but tell them from different points of view. “I’m leaving the burden of truth up to the reader,” James has said, “so it will be interesting when this trilogy is done, seeing whose story they count as true.”
The first book, 2019’s brilliant and challenging Black Leopard, Red Wolf, tells the story from the (unreliable) perspective of Tracker, a bounty hunter with a supernatural nose and a knack for verbal sparring. The second book, this year’s Moon Witch, Spider King, revisits some of the same events from the perspective of Sogolon, the 177-year-old witch with a will of tempered steel who was both a member of Tracker’s fellowship and an antagonist in the first book.
More than 1,200 pages into James’ trilogy, one thing is clear: Moon Witch, Spider King is even better than Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Unlike Tracker’s fragmentary and impressionistic narrative, Sogolon’s story is mostly linear and rich with detail, filling in many of the gaps introduced by Tracker in regards to the trilogy’s plot, settings, and characters. And while Black Leopard, Red Wolf’s confounding quest in the wilderness didn’t exactly live up to the billing of “an African Game of Thrones,” Moon Witch, Spider King’s palace intrigue certainly does.
Tracker doesn’t show up in Moon Witch, Spider King until page 500, when the first book’s Council of Elrond scene is replayed from Sogolon’s point of view. Nearly two centuries earlier, we meet Sogolon as a young orphan in the jungle, chained up like a dog by her brothers. “See the girl. The girl who live in the old termite hill,” she remembers, always speaking in a present-tense patois James says was inspired by the Wolof language of Senegal in an attempt to “make English sound not like English.” Sogolon escapes to become a mistress-in-training at a bordello, then a servant in the house of a noblewoman, and finally a handmaiden in the royal court of Kwash Kagar—the great-great-grandfather of the king we met in Black Leopard, Red Wolf.
And here’s where Moon Witch, Spider King gets really, really good. Tracker rarely took the time to describe James’ fantastical cities, but Sogolon notices everything in the capital of Fasisi—“white robes on the men and women; red dirt, bricks, and walls; purple fabrics flowing from the bazaar as they pass; green grass and trees crowning courtyards hidden behind walls.” The royal court is full of shape-shifting lions, witch hunters, and a battle for the throne among a cruel prince, a clever princess, and a conniving advisor called the Aesi—another mysteriously immortal character who, two centuries later, is looking for the same boy as Tracker and Sogolon.
“Time is the cobra, coiling and coiling,” the Aesi tells Sogolon in one of his many scene-stealing appearances, and while Sogolon’s story isn’t as bloody or breathlessly paced as Tracker’s, it’s more suspenseful and rewarding because of the way time moves forward. In Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Tracker’s story was messy and fragmented because he was trying to hide truths from his inquisitor. Sogolon isn’t a reliable narrator either, but in her case, it’s because some truths have been hidden from her by the Aesi, who is trying to rewrite history for unknown reasons.
In the final third of the novel, when Moon Witch, Spider King catches up to the events of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, it’s fascinating to see what changes between Tracker’s and Sogolon’s version of events. Some of the most confusing scenes in the first novel make a lot more sense with Sogolon’s insights into this world’s history and politics. In fact, not only could you read Moon Witch, Spider King first without missing a beat; it might even be a better introduction to James’ world than the sometimes-baffling fever dream of Black Leopard, Red Wolf. That said, Tracker was such an entertaining narrator that it’s hard to believe we’ll never hear from him again except through the eyes of other characters.
It’s too early to say what kind of lasting impact the Dark Star trilogy will make, since so much depends on how the story ends when it comes to epics (see: the actual Game Of Thrones). According to interviews with James, the third and final book will be told from the missing boy’s point of view, which should fill in even more gaps, and Michael B. Jordan is working on a film adaptation. But on their merits alone, Black Leopard, Red Wolf and Moon Witch, Spider King are wildly inventive, genre-defining works of fiction on the level of The Lord Of The Rings and the Broken Earth trilogy that deserve to be studied, dissected, and argued over.
Read The A.V. Club’s 11 Questions interview with Marlon James.
Author photo: Mark Seliger