Moon Witch, Spider King is an origin story, one that takes us through Sogolon’s trials and tribulations as she struggles her way from her abusive family to a brothel, to work in the court of royals before falling onto the wrong side of a dynastic dispute, developing a conflict with the king’s chancellor, the Aesi. Both temporal irruption and narratological uncertainty are present within Sogolon’s story: after her showdown with the Aesi, when she kills him but loses a child in the process, a gap in her memory becomes apparent; during this interval, she leaves her family and spends roughly 170 years with a community of apes, where she develops notoriety as an ageless witch.
Sogolon is found later by her great-great-granddaughter and a water sprite who explains what happened to her via long-forgotten griot: “‘Here is truth. This is the tenth time I am talking to you, and the fourth city too. […] Nobody remembered nobody, you understand?’ […] He say that four more times before I catch what he mean. Southern griots, the only clan that write the history down.” This development brings the veracity of Sogolon’s memory into disrepute, both to herself and to the reader. “Memory cut a whole chunk out of me and turn me into a fool,” she says, signaling a degree of likeness with the Tracker, protagonist of the previous novel, in the unreliability of his account.
Violence is clearly a continued theme from the prequel, a hallmark of James’s writing in general, with a direct personal-political edge that centers reproduction and patriarchy as key drivers of historical time. This starts from childhood abuse and continues to violence from masters, ultimately from the very top of royalty. The battle-oriented violence that predominated the Tracker’s account in the first novel is largely relegated to the last compacted section, yet this time framed through revenge for kinship’s plight, rather than adventurist gain. What’s striking is the manner in which social reproduction provides these arenas of joy and sensuousness. This is apparent in Sogolon’s relationship to Keme, one imbued with care and lust, as well as her love for her offspring. We see this extended with her loving embraces of her later descendent lions after losing and forgetting her original family:
Three more [lions] approach and we rub neck against neck, head against head, hair against hair, and they purr and ooh to my purr and ooh and the tears just come. […] It’s the leaning that do it, not just when they rub their head against yours, but when they lean into you and rest a weight you can barely hold, but the trust make you forget the burden.
This, not to mention the fact that decades of her life are led living with a group of apes. During this period, she becomes something of a bulwark for defending women and girls in a dangerous and fearful landscape in her figuration as the Moon Witch with the powers of “the wind (not wind).” If anything, the adventurist fantasy that James offers us is merely a series of intense instances that punctuate a life desiring community, kinship, love, and quotidian joy.
Seen through this lens, we can also think about the wider power structures at play. Gautam Bhatia argues that the alienating effect of the difficult language, one that slips and weaves out of conventional articulation, is a deliberate technique to force the reader to disidentify with the warring dynastic lineages, asking us to reevaluate our relationship to fantasy, sovereignty, and politics: “[T]here is something repugnant about immersion-to-the-point-of-identification in a world that is built upon unjust power structures.” Instead, the intensity of violence and personal struggle should be interwoven with a political critique of both the power structures depicted in this series and the wider desire to identify with bloody-minded heroism in the fantasy genre in general. We can see glimpses of this critique in the slave revolt of Dolingo (a class that officially does not exist):
But I can’t tear myself from the sight either. The slaves rebelling. I try to cut off what they brimming up in me. No, flooding me. Royal Courts. Kings, King Sisters, and Queens. A trail of impaled bodies all because of the word of one King. Me taking all of it as just the way. Even when I hate it, I accept it, even when I hate fate, I accept it. Shock come but it don’t push out the shame. Rebellion. We suffer, we survive, we endure. None of us ever think, we rebel. I snap myself back.
Here the antagonism at the root of the tale seeps out, where justice and the force of personal struggle are not in full alignment. There is a structure that alienates and segregates the multiple interests and desires that roam amongst the nonelite, subaltern classes. In addition, the oppressive tendencies of the so-called good Princess Emini, who treats Sogolon with contempt and cruelty on multiple occasions, builds this violent destructuring of the conventional fantasy narrative arc where no “good side” can be ascribed. There is undoubtedly a wider parahistorical allegory being made, too, with the figure of the “white scientists” against black magic, alongside the whisperings of slavery and emergent money-form.
Bhatia, quite astutely, likens James’s style to that of Dambudzo Marechera, the great Zimbabwean modernist, to reposition James outside of the discourse of magical realism and fantasy and thus think about experimental Black writing in a longer view. So, too, Amos Tutuola resonates throughout the writing in its aboriginal subalternity, an organic modernism emanating from the soil itself. In reorienting Tutuola’s work outside of the fixity of Western genre, we lend credence to James’s effort to deconstruct certain precepts. This likeness is most apparent in the pidgin style of writing that James employs, where verbs are not conjugated fully, syntax is unwieldy, and immersion is difficult.
Black American poet Will Alexander, in his recent collection Refractive Africa (Granta, 2021), riffs off Tutuola in a long poem titled “Based on the Bush of Ghosts” to enjoin a contemporary surrealism that bears resemblance to the aesthetic, thematic, and social charge of Moon Witch, Spider King, and the Dark Star trilogy more generally. A passage:
in your verbal volubility
you inscripted the paradox of contraction with great
eruption inside confinement
the infinite “Bush”
its dense compacting within a spider’s forces
where the “flash-eyed mother”
swims inside the phosphenes
being night & day in rapid succession being powerful
perpetuation of your imbroglio
of your interior rays parallel to the impalpable
parallel to the ambrosia sans scholarly abstraction
There is a force of linguistic cut, virtuosity, and dynamic imbrication between a literary abstraction and a racialized interiority that speaks to the work of James. This is all to say that while Moon Witch, Spider King sits within genre fiction, it is undoubtedly part of a larger movement of writing and thought that works to desediment colonial imaginaries and develop further iterations of an experimentalist lineage that sees normative subjectivity, narrative, and temporality as fractured and contingent. The surrealist bent, which Alexander exemplifies well, is important for asserting the anti-Eurocentric strands of modernism that find canonical place within European aesthetic tradition, and throughout Black experimentalism, demonstrating the relational interplay that is very much possible, albeit submerged. This framing would also refute the preponderance of depictions of violence in James’s work as merely a question of literary style or discursive provocativeness; instead we can root such language in the fractal nature of subjectivity and narrative itself as formed out of world-historical conditions.
The Dark Star series, as a fantasy trilogy, becomes a double meditation on (colonial) violence as it occurs in both an ostensibly precolonial and parallel space-time. In developing this distance, James finds space to work within the bounds of genre to explicate themes prevalent throughout his oeuvre, offering here a story of fractured subalternity that may initially appear as an archetypal hero narrative. The space of the subject, through Sogolon and the Tracker, is being interrogated on literary-aesthetic terms outside the bounds of the historicist-pull that is present in A Brief History of Seven Killings or The Book of Night Women, for instance. This means pulling us into formalist questions somewhat counterintuitively through the visceral imagery and motifs of a pulp genre. This is a deadly serious, lively contribution to contemporary discourses of genre, racialized subjectivity, and the narrative-form-as-colonial-text; one can guarantee the next installment will bear even more fruit for thought.
Kashif Sharma-Patel is a London-based writer, poet, and editor.