From its first beautiful sentence — “She does not want to remember but she is here and memory is gathering bones” — Maaza Mengiste’s magisterial The Shadow King drew me into the stark, dusty sweep of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. Drenched in the blazing light of near-equatorial Africa , a light that feels almost omniscient as it slants through the narrative, the novel focuses most closely on a female servant named Hirut who becomes a hero of the Ethiopian resistance. Hirut’s evolution from servant to soldier is partly influenced by her masters, Kidane and Aster, both fierce patriots, but also by her anger at her position in Ethiopian society. As a young orphan from a non-aristocratic home, she is subject to servitude and rape; she is, as Aster tells her, born to fit into a world made by others. In Mengiste’s hands, this colonial dynamic — between making the world and being forced to inhabit it — extends, brilliantly, into all of the novel’s relationships, from the nuptial fears of a child bride to the tension between a homicidal army commander and the soldiers wavering between disbelief and submission. The Shadow King’s scope is vast, weaving between Ethiopian soldiers, Mussolini’s troops, Emperor Haile Selassie, and a diverse group of women, and cinematically written. It questions the theatre of war and what it means to obey; it questions the roles of women in war, and the various battlefields they traverse; it questions the line between witness and perpetrator. It is the finest and most fascinating novel I have read in a long time, and I hope it lands in many readers’ hands. Recommended By Rhianna W., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
Set during Mussolini's 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, The Shadow King takes us back to the first real conflict of World War II, casting light on the women soldiers who were left out of the historical record. At its heart is orphaned maid Hirut, who finds herself tumbling into a new world of thefts and violations, of betrayals and overwhelming rage. What follows is a heartrending and unputdownable exploration of what it means to be a woman at war.
"A memorable portrait of a people at war — a war that has long demanded recounting from an Ethiopian point of view." Kirkus Reviews
"Mengiste breaks new ground in this evocative, mesmerizing account of the role of women during wartime — not just as caregivers, but as bold warriors defending their country." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
"[A] monumental new novel." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Mengiste’s...tale of Ethiopian women warriors is fascinating and tension-filled....short, cinematic chapters dense with imagery and sensory detail. Descriptions of the fog of battle are exquisite and horrific....Highly recommended." Library Journal (Starred Review)
About the Author
Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A Fulbright scholar and professor at Queens College, she is the author of Beneath the Lion's Gaze and a 2018 recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. She lives in New York City.