Marlon James on His Follow-Up to Black Leopard, Red Wolf and the Importance of Fantasy

Marlon James on His Follow-Up to Black Leopard, Red Wolf and the Importance of Fantasy
See the full cover for Moon Witch, Spider King by artist Pablo Gerardo Camacho below! (Image: Riverhead Books)

Marlon James began his Dark Star trilogy — aka “the African Game of Thrones” — with 2019’s highly acclaimed Black Leopard, Red Wolf, which is currently being adapted for the screen by Michael B. Jordan. The second book in the series, Moon Witch, Spider King, will be out February 15, 2022, but today, Gizmodo has the exclusive first look at the cover for you as well as a chat with James all about his much-anticipated follow-up.

Here’s a brief intro to Moon Witch, Spider King:

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 centre 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.

And below, the full reveal of the cover by Pablo Gerardo Camacho, followed by our interview (conducted via email) with author Marlon James!

Image: Riverhead Books Image: Riverhead Books

Cheryl Eddy, Gizmodo: Rather than a traditional sequel, Moon Witch, Spider King explores the story of Black Leopard, Red Wolf from a different perspective. Why did you decide to structure the book that way? What advantages and challenges did it pose for you as an author?

Marlon James: So many ways to answer this question. Years ago, a friend was telling me about this TV show, The Affair which weirdly enough reminded me of the film Rashomon. Confession: I’ve seen Rashomon at least 10 times but still haven’t watched a single episode of The Affair. All I remember is that it was the story of a man and a woman cheating on their spouses, told from their points of view. And that reminded me of Kurosawa’s film, which is also about different versions of the same story that don’t quite add up. But a lot of nonwestern storytelling flows this way. In several traditional African and diaspora stories, there is no authentic version, no director’s cut, no one truth to rule them all, which is very much a western thing to do, but also a reductive thing to do.

Then there is this — in a lot of African folk tales, the trickster is the one telling you the story, or it’s about him, which ties you to his perspective, his world view, even his biases and prejudices. Sometimes you are told different versions of the same story each night. The burden of truth is not on the tale itself, but in what you discern truth to be. I’ve always been interested in how two people seeing the same thing can come to very different conclusions — I can walk into a room and see somebody gobbling a bag of chips and think he’s starving, while you’ll think he’s greedy. It’s also pretty topical of the moment we’re in — even though I didn’t set out to be — where people really do think truth is a choice, and that choice is up for grabs. So in that spirit, I will never tell the reader which character or story to believe. I’m leaving the burden of truth up to the reader, so it will be interesting when this trilogy is done, seeing whose story they count as true.

And because this is not a linear trilogy, the reader who has not yet read Black Leopard, Red Wolf could absolutely start with Moon Witch, Spider King. In fact, I’m looking forward to hearing their take on the BLRW, having gotten to Sogolon first.

Gizmodo: What were the reasons for choosing Sologon as the new protagonist? Will fans of Black Leopard, Red Wolf notice a Rashomon effect as the characters have their own interpretations of different encounters and story points?

James: Well, Sogolon, despite being a woman with agency and conflict, is a character who was totally shaped by the perspective of man. A man who didn’t even like her very much. It’s like this — think of say, your friend’s boyfriend. The only time she talks about him is when they have issues, when they’re fighting, when he does something inconsiderate or cruel, or when they are breaking up. This person may very well be a total SOB, but notice that the only time she talks about him is when there’s a problem, never when they are doing great. So my entire perception of this boyfriend is based only on the negative stuff I know. That’s kind of what Tracker did to Sogolon, though I’m sure he thought he was being fair and true.

Then there’s the little fact that Sogolon is over a century older than Tracker. Add to that somebody who has literally seen it all and has come back with the scars to prove it, and what you get is a character who just came across as a flipping gift to the author. She’s been through a lot, and has quite a lot to say about it.

Will there be a Rashomon effect? Yes and no. Many of the crucial elements in the first novel are recounted in this one, but bear in mind that what’s important to Tracker may not be to Sogolon. People who matter to him do not matter to her. Moments crucial to him she’s indifferent to, and stuff life-changing for him, she doesn’t even see. She’s also here for a different set of motivations — she even has a different take on the mission. This means that some characters you barely knew are now central, while others may have vanished.

Gizmodo: What are some of your favourite fantasy works (novels, movies, etc.) that feature strong women as the lead characters, or just favourite female characters from the realm of fantasy? Did those inspire you while you were writing Moon Witch, Spider King? Where else did you find your inspiration, even beyond that?

James: Funnily enough, whenever I’m writing female characters it’s not so much that I read a lot of fiction with female protagonists so much as I read a lot of women novelists. On my desk for the whole time was Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Because I do feel that when you’re writing women you shouldn’t just read women characters (and even that is a stretch for too many male authors) but read women writers. I teach creative writing and I can always tell when a writer is not reading because there are critical aspects of the art that I simply cannot teach you — no one can. You can only learn it from reading books. What do we mean by “it”? That’s different for every writer. But we all know what it is, that valuable writing lesson that we could only have learned through the experience of a book.

That said, I’m total digging Sigourney Rose in The Conquered, Maryse in Ring Shout, the Eastwood sisters in Once and Future Witches, Tituba in I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (not fantasy, but they do think she’s a witch). I’m always reading while I’m writing and pretty much anything I’m reading inspires me. You’d be surprised for example how much of an effect Giovanni’s Room had on my Sogolon forcing herself to get to her truth.

Gizmodo: The past 18 months have been challenging for almost everyone, to say the very least. What role do you think fantasy fiction plays in helping people feel hope for the future, or perhaps helping them to broaden their thinking about where we are today?

James: I don’t know if fiction should dare to be so presumptuous. I’m just glad that anybody reads. But I will say that coming off over a year of confinement, maybe we have a whole new appreciation for any means of escape. That now flights of fantasy are necessary since a lot of us can’t go anywhere. It’s weird saying that the fantasy offers a vision of a better world because more often than not we’re writing about very troubled worlds, and horrendous circumstances that need to be overcome. If anything fantasy sometimes gives us the ability to appreciate what we do have.

Gizmodo: Any updates you can give on the Michael B. Jordan adaptation of Black Leopard, Red Wolf? What’s your involvement in the process been so far?

James: As with everything else, covid slowed us down, but it’s still in production, we’re still making progress, and while it’s slow going, it’s coming.


Marlon James’ Moon Witch, Spider King will be out February 15, 2022. You can pre-order a copy here.