Book review: Marlon James' epic fantasy enters the season of the witch

Marlon James' Moon Witch, Spider King follows Sogolon through the many years of her long and bloody life. PHOTOS: RIVERHEAD BOOKS, MARK SELIGER

Moon Witch, Spider King

By Marlon James
Fantasy/Riverhead Books/Paperback/656 pages/$33.71/Buy here/Borrow here
4 out of 5

Amid the coruscating cast of characters in Black Leopard, Red Wolf (buy here, borrow here) - the first instalment of Jamaican novelist Marlon James' Dark Star trilogy - one in particular stood out: Sogolon the Moon Witch, a powerful old woman who, depending on which rumour you listen to, is either 177 or 370 years old.

"Thank the gods for this man to tell us what we already know," is her sarcastic comeback to that book's narrator, the pugnacious, vaunting Tracker.

But that was his story to tell. Now, it is her turn.

In a stunning flip of perspective, the Man Booker Prize-winning author gives the stage to Sogolon in this sequel that outdoes its already impressive predecessor.

The novel, set in the same dazzling fantasy world drawn from African myth, follows Sogolon through the many years of her long and bloody life.

She begins as a nameless girl-child abused by her brothers, is trafficked first to a brothel and then as a servant to a rich household, and finally gifted against her will to the royal court. There, she meets the sadistic sorcerer who will become her lifelong nemesis, the Aesi.

Sogolon possesses a mysterious telekinesis she calls the "wind (not wind)" and struggles to control. She also learns how to be a vicious fighter, first to survive, then to slake her bloodthirstiness. Her visceral action sequences seem to pop off the page.

The story moves through her multiple incarnations: bodyguard, mother and the Moon Witch, a ruthless vigilante who stalks and kills men who do violence to women and children.

Finally, her path converges with Tracker's, when they are both hired as part of a motley crew of mercenaries to rescue a kidnapped boy.

Everyone in this fractious fellowship has his or her own agenda: Sogolon's is to use the boy as bait to draw out her old enemy, the Aesi, who is also hunting him.

For those who found Tracker's machismo and misogyny exhausting, Sogolon's voice will be a revelation. She, too, inhabits a world of extraordinary violence, but battles it in a way that makes her one of the most remarkable fantasy heroines in recent publication.

James laid down most of the groundwork for his world-building in the first book - monsters plucked from myth, magical doors that teleport you across the realms, a women-run city rising above the treetops - and the sequel has the benefit of riding on that.

While it does not add as much to the rich tapestry of this universe, it is also far easier to follow, the reader having grown used to James' flights of invention and knack for defamiliarising language in constantly exciting ways.

The book does grow repetitive as it retreads old ground, retelling the events of the first volume and lapsing into "he said, she said" bickering. That said, it still manages a few twists by revealing insights that escaped Tracker's notice the first time round.

"Because for all his love and all his loss, that man with a nose is just a boy," says Sogolon derisively of her one-time colleague. "And truth speaking? This is woman work. So let us make this quick."

At more than 600 pages, it certainly is not quick - but it is a thrilling ride nonetheless. It seems doubtful that James can top it with the final volume, The Boy And The Dark Star, but this reviewer looks forward to being proved wrong.

If you like this, read: Nnedi Okorafor's Akata trilogy, beginning with Akata Witch (Speak, 2011, $19.21, buy here, borrow here). Sunny Nwazue, an albino child of 12, moves from America, where she was born, to Nigeria. She discovers she has magical powers and forms a coven with three other students.

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