Book review: Moon Witch, Spider King, by Marlon James

There’s no doubting the skill or invention of this new novel from Marlon James, writes Allan Massie, but in a fantasy world where anything can happen, does anything that happens really matter?

Marlon James PIC: Mark Seliger
Marlon James PIC: Mark Seliger

Marlon James won the Booker Prize 2015 for A Brief History of Seven Killings, set in Jamaica where he was born, reared and educated. It was a powerful novel, though the memorable title was misleading, for it was anything but brief and there were many more than seven bloody killings, described with considerable relish. Then he turned to fantasy, and this new novel is the second volume of his “Dark Star Trilogy”, set in a richly mythical Africa. The publishers call it “revolutionary.” James himself advises readers not to worry if they haven’t read the first of the three books, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, because the books may be read in any order. Well, this is true, I suppose, of several trilogies or sequence-novels. It has been compared to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, though it is much more gory, which is why it has also been compared to Game of Thrones.

There is a quest common to both books – the search for a lost or missing boy-king – but, just to confuse you, the story of this second volume seems to pre-date the first one. The main character here, the Moon Witch Sogolon, something of a villain in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, is now what passes for the heroine, a damaged and shackled child when we first meet her, soon possessed of mysterious powers. She is, by one count, almost 200 years old. I don’t know if James has read Rider Haggard’s novel She, the goddess/queen/priestess, styled “She Who Must Be Obeyed”, but Sogolon bears some resemblance to her. She is wickedly clever as well as powerful.

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The novel is rich in blood, slaughter, rapes and violent deaths, too much so, I would say, for readers not suckled on video games. James writes with audacity and there are brilliant passages of description. There are stories galore and the novel draws on African folklore, but whether this is authentic or the author’s invention isn’t clear; a good deal of both, I would suppose.

Moon Witch, Spider King, by Marlon James

The narrative is restless and confusing. Brilliant images abound. Much, however, is repulsive. One would say the author displays a disgusting relish in cruelty and perversions. Or at least one is tempted to say this, until one accepts that the blood is ketchup and the sex scenes, sometimes grotesque, are also, no matter how pornographic, so far removed from common experience as to be meaningless. James writes with panache, but some day an author, as naturally talented as he is, may come to see the value of restraint. Self-denial is usually preferable to self-indulgence.

In fantasy almost anything and everything may be permitted, but even fantasy often benefits from economy. I have never, despite several attempts, much enjoyed Tolkien, but, recognizing the deep appeal of his work to so many, I reckon that his success owes as much to his ability to create what many find a pleasing, even comforting self-contained world as in his imaginative invention. The trouble with fantasy is that when the author can make anything happen, no matter how wild and fantastic, it is difficult to make such happening significant. When anything can happen, little that happens really matters. Successful fantasy requires the author to rein in his wildest imaginings, sometimes, as in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, by encasing the improbable in a pedestrian normality, or, as in HG Wells’s masterpiece, The Time Machine, by creating a very limited, self-contained world.

James has an exuberant fancy and I have no doubt that this novel will have a wide appeal. It may well become a cult book, one to which people will eagerly surrender. They will not care about its absurdities and will find no difficulty in accepting that Sogolon is almost 200 years old. They will lap it all up, wear the T-shirt and buy any spin-off merchandise. So it may be more a criticism of me and my narrow taste, that I find it essentially silly, also boring, and conclude that the author, for all his gifts, has taken a wrong track.

Moon Witch, Spider King, by Marlon James, Penguin, 626pp, £20

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