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BOOK REVIEW

‘Moon Witch, Spider King’ turns African fantasy on its head

Randy Pollack for The Boston Globe

Marlon James’s “Moon Witch, Spider King,” the second book in his Dark Star trilogy, is both a continuation of the narrative that began with “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” in 2019 and an outstanding retelling of that story that expands on what the first book started. While shifting points of view, James (who won the Man Booker Prize for his novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings”) enriches the existing story, and the result is a book that simultaneously celebrates African mythology while creating its own.

Sogolon, the Moon Witch, was a sort of antagonist in “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” while Tracker, who was famous for his tracking skills, easily occupied the role of hero as he looked far and wide for a mysterious missing boy. Now, in “Moon Witch, Spider King,” Sogolon is thrown into the limelight as she offers her own version of what happened to the boy, chronicles her own quest to find him, and remembers her early life: first as an ostracized child, later as a servant in the royal court, and finally as a woman with fully developed powers engaged in a long-standing feud with the Aesi, chancellor to the king.

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“Moon Witch, Spider King” is an impressive amalgamation of folklore, magic, and mythology that weaves together several narratives, but the element that makes it memorable is James’s prose. As lush as the forests he describes, the prose in this novel is simple, rhythmic, and strangely elegant. This is writing with a kind of cadence that turns every line into a poem, every story a tale told around a fire, every event an occurrence deserving of attention. This novel uses storytelling to celebrate storytelling:

“The story is this, that for ages the Sunken City stand tall and reach high until sink it did indeed do, below the dirt and beyond memory. Time run and pass, pass and run, age sit on top of age, and the land take back what the city take away, so much that it is a rain forest now, under rule of deceiving bush, aloof trees, night cats, and the backbreaker tribe of gorillas. Hear this, nobody supposed to be walking through the forest, for parts of it darker than the Darklands, but look how this is where I walking, over ferns and under trees, cutting through mist, and creeping under branches that look like the ragged legs of a giant scorpion.”

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Retelling the same story from a different perspective is not a gimmick here; it is a successful literary device that leads to a gripping narrative. “Moon Witch, Spider King” is a long, dense, nuanced novel, but James is always in control and repeatedly shows a knack for pulling readers into the story with tension, humor, or occasional playful pushes against the fourth wall: “Look at you, hotting up yourself with glut, seeing you come here for facts, but fact is not why you come here every morning before the rooster even crow. You come here for story not so the Tracker tell you?”

Because of their scope and some of their themes — royalty, war, magic, mythology — the two books in the Dark Star trilogy have been compared to the work of writers like George R.R. Martin and J.R.R. Tolkien. Despite their validity, those comparisons miss the mark because they draw attention away from the distinctiveness of what James has done and is still in the process of doing: developing an epic fable drenched in African mythology. This is work that both meets the immersive worldbuilding standard in books by Tolkien and Martin and brings to the genre a voice unlike anything seen before.

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As readers get to know Sogolon’s past and even travel with her into the “dream jungle,” events that had the sheen of truth in the earlier book reconfigure themselves when seen through the Moon Witch’s lens and the story becomes new again. More than establishing a basic male/female dichotomy or showing an alternate point of view, the retelling possesses its own unique magic and quickly morphs into an exploration of the ways in which things like intent and anger can alter our perception of the world around us.

“Moon Witch, Spider King” is Sogolon telling her side of the story and becoming a key player in the ongoing narrative while doing so. This is a novel about the power of grief where anger is a driving force, and in that, despite all its fantastical elements, it is a deeply human story. If James managed to capture the imagination of readers with “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” this second book, which is darker, longer, and better, does even more: It sets readers up for what will undoubtedly be a superb finale.

MOON WITCH, SPIDER KING

By Marlon James

Riverhead Books, 656 pages, $30

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Gabino Iglesias is a creative writing professor, literary critic, and the author of “Zero Saints,” “Coyote Songs,” and “The Devil Takes You Home.”