Set amid African legend and mythology, and the wildly imaginative and crazy talented mind of Marlon James, the Dark Star trilogy is an action-packed fantasy epic that feels old and yet, refreshingly new at the same time. In this second installment, we dive into Sogolon’s world, a woman shaped by violence, fighting to tell her story. This fierce tale is lyrical and provocative, wrapped in a world that pulls you in from the start.
"Even more brilliant than the first.” —Buzzfeed
An Instant New York Times Bestseller and NPR Best Book of 2022 pick
From Marlon James, author of the bestselling National Book Award finalist Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the second book in the Dark Star trilogy.
In Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Sogolon the Moon Witch proved a worthy adversary to Tracker as they clashed across a mythical African landscape in search of a mysterious boy who disappeared. In Moon Witch, Spider King, Sogolon takes center stage and gives her own account of what happened to the boy, and how she plotted and fought, triumphed and failed as she looked for him. It’s also the story of a century-long feud—seen through the eyes of a 177-year-old witch—that Sogolon had with the Aesi, chancellor to the king. It is said that Aesi works so closely with the king that together they are like the eight limbs of one spider. Aesi’s power is considerable—and deadly. It takes brains and courage to challenge him, which Sogolon does for reasons of her own.
Both a brilliant narrative device—seeing the story told in Black Leopard, Red Wolf from the perspective of an adversary and a woman—as well as a fascinating battle between different versions of empire, Moon Witch, Spider King delves into Sogolon’s world as she fights to tell her own story. Part adventure tale, part chronicle of an indomitable woman who bows to no man, it is a fascinating novel that explores power, personality, and the places where they overlap.
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One night I was in the dream jungle. It was not a dream, but a memory that jump up in my sleep to usurp it. And in the dream memory is a girl. See the girl. The girl who live in the old termite hill. Her brothers three, who live in a big hut, say that the hill look like the rotting heart of a giant turn upside down, but she don't know what any of that mean. The girl, she is pressing her lips tight in the hill's hollow belly, the walls a red mud and rough to the touch. No window unless you call a hole a window and, if so, then many windows, popping all over and making light cut across her body up, down, and crossway, making heat sneak in and stay, and making wind snake around the hollow. Termites long ago leave it, this hill. A place nobody would keep a dog, but look how this is where they keep her.
Two legs getting longer but still two sticks, head getting bigger but chest still as flat as earth, she may be right at the age before her body set loose, but nobody bother to count her years. Yet they mark it every summer, mark it with rage and grief. They, her brothers. That is how they mark her birth, oh. At that time of year they feel malcontent come as a cloud upon them, for which she is to blame. So, she is pressing her lips together because that is a firm thing, her lips as tight as the knuckles she squeezing. Resolve set in her face to match her mind. There. Decided. She is going to flee, crawl out of this hole and run and never stop running. And if toe fall off, she will run on heel, and if heel fall off, she will run on knee, and if knee fall off, she will crawl. Like a baby going back to her mother, maybe. Her dead mother who don't live long enough to name her.
With the small light coming and going through the entry holes, she can count days. With the smell of cow shit, she can tell that one brother is tilling the ground to plant new crops, which can only mean that it is either Arb or Gidada, the ninth or tenth day of the Camsa moon. With one more look around, she see the large leaf on which they dump a slop of porridge last evening, one of only two times every quartermoon that they feed her. When they remember. Most of the time they just let her starve, and if they finally remember, late in the night, they say it's too late anyway, let some spirit feed her in dreams.
See the girl. Watch the girl as she hear. It is through her brothers yelling about when to plant millet, and when to rest the ground, that she learn season from season. Days of rain and days of dry tell her the rest. Otherwise, they just drag her out of the termite hill by rope bound to the shackle they keep around her neck, tie her to a branch and drag her through the field, yelling at her to plow the cow shit, goat shit, pig shit, and deer shit with her hands. Dig into the dirt with your hands and mix the shit deep so that your own food, which you don't deserve, can grow. The girl is born with penance on her back. And to her three brothers she will never pay it in full.
Watch the boys. Her brothers, the older two laughing at the youngest one screaming. Boys like they were born, wearing nothing but yellow, red, and blue straw pads on their elbows and shins, and tiny straw shields over their knuckles. The older two both wear helmets that look like straw cages over their heads. Helmets in yellow and green. The girl crawl out of her oven to watch them. Her oldest brother spin a stick as tall as a house. He swirl and twirl and jump like he is dancing. But then he rolls, jumps up, and swing the stick straight for middle brother's neck. Middle brother scream.
"We from the same mother," oldest brother say, and laugh. He turn away for a blink but still he is too slow. A stick strike fire on his left shoulder. He swing around, laughing even though the hit draw blood. Now he going do it. He grab his stick with two hands like an ax and run after his brother, raining down chop after chop. Middle brother strike two blows but oldest is too fast. Swing and swing and swing and chop and chop and chop. Slash to the chest, slash to the left arm, slash to the bottom lip, bursting it.
"Is only play, brother," middle brother say, and spit blood.
Youngest brother try to tighten the big helmet to his little head, but fail. "I can beat the two of you," he say.
"Look at this little shit. You know why we go to donga, boy?" ask oldest brother.
"I not a fool. You go to win the stick fight. To kill the fool who challenge you."
Both brother look at the youngest like a stranger just appear in their midst.
"You too young, brother."
"I want to play!"
Oldest brother turn to face him.
"You don't know anything about the donga. You know what this stick is for?"
"You deaf? I say to fight, and to kill!"
"No, little shit. This is first stick. When you win, you get to use your second stick. Ask any pretty girl who come to stick fight."
He grin at middle brother, who grin back. Youngest brother confused.
"But you only use one stick to stick-fight, not two."
"As I say. Too young."
Middle brother point at youngest brother's cock.
"Ha, littlest brother's stick is but a twig."
The two brothers laugh long enough for rage to come over youngest brother face, not because he still don't understand, but because he do. The little girl watch. How he grab the stick, how far he pull back the swing, how hard he strike, right in the middle of middle brother's back. He yell, older brother spin around, and his stick quick smack youngest brother on the forehead, swing again and clap him behind the knees. Youngest brother fall, and oldest brothers rain down strike all over his body. Youngest screaming, and middle grab oldest by the arm. They walk off, leaving youngest bawling in the dirt. But as soon as he see that nobody is watching him, he stop crying and run after them. The little girl creep farther from the hut and take up a stick they leave behind. Stronger and harder than she did expect, and longer also. Longer than her height three times over. She swing it back, whip the ground, and wake up dust.
We wait for mother to scream four times, that is what we do, say the oldest to her. Day gone but night not yet come, and he yank her chain twice to allow her to come out, though most times he just pull her out without warning, and by the time he reel her in, the girl is choking. Palm wine is spinning his head, which mean he is going to talk things that nobody is around to listen to. He yank the chain like he is pulling a stubborn donkey, yet it is the only time he allow her near the house. And when she do, the girl meet up on a loose memory, that of her father picking her up and smiling but the smile go sour in the quick and his arms go weak and there's one little blink where she float in the air before she fall in the dirt. We wait for mother to scream four times, he says, for four times mean it's a boy, and three mean it's a girl. But mother didn't scream.
Oldest brother is telling the story, but palm wine make him tell it with no form. You see my father? You see his pride when mother's belly start to push forward like it is leading her? Three sons soon to be four, and if it is a daughter then he can marry her off if he get rich, or sell her off if he get poor. Your brothers watching your father count till the baby is born, for she gone to bear child at her mother's house. All of us waiting to hear news of a boy, but your youngest brother the most, for finally he can be older brother and do the things older brothers do. Your father wait for news but he also resting, for he did finally listen when his wife say, Husband this small house will not do. And make it bigger he do, knocking out the wall to the grain keep and making it a bigger room for the two oldest boys, then building another room for the younger boy and the boy coming, and another room for mother's seamstressing for she is the most glorious of women. And one for the grandmother who he hate but cannot allow to live alone. We wait for the mother to scream four times. But four screams don't come, and three screams don't come either. When we get to Grandmother's hut she say, The baby, she come out foot first with the birth cord around her neck. My daughter bleed and bleed and bleed until she all bleed out, then her eye go white and she gone. Ko oroji adekwu ebila afingwi, grandmother say, but it was not yet her time to rest. Little devil, motherslayer, you are like the one speck that drive the whole eye blind.
Look how you bring down curses on this house! My father take to weeping one morning, dancing the next, then screaming to the ancestors at night for their wicked sport. We speak to the priest, he say. We wear the amulet, we invoke the gods of thunder and safe journey, we don't eat fat, or bean, or meat kill by the arrow, so why the gods bring tribulation on us? She rejoice in her belly, she rejoice in her husband and we don't lie with each other for six moons, so why the gods bring tribulation on us? Why, when we pour libations and give praise to the goddess of rivers who control the water in the womb? Nobody call him mad until one day we see him curling upside down, knee past chest and pissing into his own mouth. After that, mad is what we call him. The third day after birth is the naming ceremony, but nobody come and nobody go. Nobody dare name you, for you are curse and the only thing worse than birthing a curse is to name it, for every time you call the name, you invoke woe. So no name for you. Also this, little one, nobody spit crocodile pepper in your mouth to prevent you becoming a shameful woman, and nobody make you a necklace of iron to cut you off from the world of spirits.
A new night. The little girl feel the tug of the chain on her neck, which turn into a pull, then a yank right out of the termite hill, a yank so fierce that she burst through the small entrance, leaving a bigger hole. So the yanking go, through the mud and the dirt, and the chicken shit, almost breaking her neck until she grab on to the chain, until the girl see that she is moving closer and closer to the house. She flip around to see nobody pulling her, but hear a slither on the ground. A giant white and yellow python hitch her tail to the chain as she moving to the house, not knowing that she dragging the girl. The girl, she fear what the python do when it get to the house of her sleeping brothers. But no scream come to her mouth, no yell, no cry.
But then the python tail slip from the chain. Not slip, for she seeing it in the dark. The tail getting smaller and smaller as if the snake is sucking in herself. The tail getting smaller as the snake get wider, bigger, like a caterpillar, for much movement is rumbling under her skin. The white and yellow lumps twist and stretch and turn and roll, until two hands burst through the skin and tear the whole body open. The skin slip away and a naked woman rise up. This woman don't look back once, just head to the house and around the side. The little girl follow her from several paces behind, to the back of the house as the python woman climb through the middle brother's window. She sit in the dust and the dark listening to silence, until a man's cry come from her brother's room. Louder and louder, this cry, loud enough to make her leap to her feet and run to the window, which is too high for her, so she scout in the darkness for something to stand on and find only a stool with one broken leg. An oil lamp light the room dim. On the floor is her brother and riding her brother is the python woman. She jumping up and down like she trying to catch something, the brother jerking and writhing like somebody is beating him rough. Then he yell that she finish him, he dead, and his whole body collapse on the floor. Then he start to cry, while through all of this, the python woman say nothing. Nobody come here but this whore witch, he say. I not no whore nor witch, you just cursed, she say. You and your brothers and your mad father and dead mother. So cursed that only whores come near you.
"You should kill the girl," the python woman say.
"Try to kill her already, but she come back," the brother say. The little girl nearly fall off the stool.
"Four days after she drive my father to madness, and drive my mother to the otherworld, we, my brothers and me, take her out to leave her in the deep bush. But do you believe the cursed girl find her way back? She not even crawling yet. People in the village say that Yumboes, grass fairies, feed her nectar and crushed nuts. Little sorceress, they call her. Sake of her, the village shun us. Blame us when rain don't fall, or the crops yield small. Listen, I say to the people, come take her if you want her. I don't care what you do, but nobody come. We three raise weselves with people leaving us food until we can grow our own. She is the reason why they shun us. She is the reason why I not going have any wife but you."