Moon Witch, Spider King by Marlon James review – the lion, the witch and the lost child | Marlon James

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What do you write after winning the Booker prize? A fine problem to have, to be sure, yet the question of how to follow success – of whether to stick or twist, creatively speaking – hardly seems simple, at least to judge by the number of writers yet to publish another novel since winning.

Post-Booker paralysis hasn’t been an issue for the Jamaican novelist Marlon James, now more than 1,000 pages deep into an ongoing trilogy. After winning in 2015 with his third book, A Brief History of Seven Killings, about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, he thought of writing a “quiet, literary” narrative about Jamaicans in New York; instead came 2019’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf, a gore-slathered fantasy epic in a mythical ancient Africa of warring kingdoms, roamed by a ragtag band of superpower-boosted antiheroes, including a 300-year-old witch, Sogolon, hunting down a swarm of child-murdering demons.

A gruelling, invigorating reading experience rife with contradictions, it widened the horizons of swords-and-sorcery narratives while presenting a lurid vision of Africa to rival anything in the imperialist make-believe of H Rider Haggard. It was hard not to wonder if the fluid sexuality of the central characters, combined with the story’s late-arriving anti-patriarchal thrust, somehow served to green light the excesses of its expletive-laden, groin-fixated splatterfest. Hard not to suspect, too, that the relentless chopping-and-fucking emphasis served as counterweight to a literary artist’s anxiety about writing a book whose ambitions lay not only in decolonising the fantasy genre but also in recapturing the heady rush of devouring Star Wars novelisations and X-Men comics in his youth.

Moon Witch, Spider King, the second instalment, dials down, just a touch, the gut-clenching grotesquerie that characterised the first book. For the most part, it’s an origin story fleshing out Sogolon’s emotional stake in the search for a dead child with which the earlier book began. The action unfolds as a kind of nomadic picaresque centred on her flight from her downtrodden girlhood, in which salvation repeatedly heralds a new form of captivity, whether she’s on the run from her abusive brothers or the royal court where, as a servant, she gets a backstairs view of a succession drama she unwittingly fuels thanks to her lethal telekinetic ability to blow people up from inside, used inadvertently to fend off the predatory head of the household she’s taken into after escaping a brothel.

Like its predecessor, this is a long book, scaled to satisfy the genre’s typically pig-out portions, yet with an uncompromising prose style that shuns easy-reading propulsion. Despite the unglossed vocabulary, the novel’s diction tends to be relatively straightforward: in a childbirth scene, for instance, we read that “everything is wet wet wet and red red red” (typically, we’re also shown “the afterbirth in the corner luring flies”). The difficulty lies more in the book’s enviable confidence that we’ll be able to grasp, say, who’s speaking without the narrative making it crystal-clear, or James’s relaxed attitude to (for example) using three different names for the same character in a single paragraph.

The result is that a chronic fog, strobe-lit by regular flashes of sex and violence, overlays the big picture weirdness, tricky enough in itself to keep track of, with dreams and occasional interludes in an airborne city mixing with a ground-floor reality that isn’t exactly humdrum, to say the least. In that childbirth scene – a mid-book swerve into domestic marital drama – Sogolon gives birth to “lion cubs”, and she’s not talking figuratively; as she points out, in this world “a shape shifter is nothing strange… and anyway my middle brother used to fuck a snake”.

In short, there’s a huge amount going on, and yet the novel’s habit of never staying any place long, combined with its studied indeterminacy about what’s actually happening – Sogolon might be 170 years old, not 300, and isn’t, it turns out, even called Sogolon – serves as an extreme test of stamina. Repeated boss-level clashes with a memory-wiping demigod, the Aesi, don’t come clearly enough into definition to generate real suspense, and despite a lengthy dramatis personae, the book’s only substantial relationship involves Keme, the half-lion father of Sogolon’s aforementioned cubs. By far the most impactful scene involves the frenzied bouts of coupling that ensue after one of their brood is felled in a raid by demons; when Keme wildly beckons a surviving child to come and watch him and Sogolon in the act of making another sibling, it’s a troublingly strange moment with an authentic psychological frisson, rare in a novel intent on baser thrills.

All the same, anyone who stays the course through all this probably won’t want to miss the final instalment to come: a swerve into horror, apparently. On the basis of what’s already been published, that ought to make us shudder in more ways than one – perhaps with a tinge of anticipation, too, for that peaceful novel about Jamaicans in New York.

Moon Witch, Spider King by Marlon James is published by Hamish Hamilton (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply



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