The Shadow King, by Maaza Mengiste

Trigger warning for rape and torture.

In 1974, Hirut is a middle-aged woman shading into elderly. No one looking at her on the bus she is riding at the beginning of The Shadow King, the extraordinary novel by Maaza Mengiste, would know that she was a warrior who fought in her country’s most terrible war. The metal box full of photographs on her lap, however, is full of evidence of Hirut’s struggles and heroism. She is on a last mission to take these images back to the Italian photographer who took them and can’t resist a last look.

Until October 1935, when Fascist Italian forces invaded Ethiopia for the second time, Hirut was living a very isolated life as a slave to a jealous woman and her imperious husband. There’s no end in sight and no possibility of escape. It’s strange to say it, but the war is an opportunity for Hirut to change her fate. As many characters say in this novel, the only way out is through. The Shadow King shows us not just Hirut’s story; but also the dreamy fall of Emperor Haile Selassie as he loses his grip on his country and dignity and the struggles of Kidane and Aster, the people who claim to own Hirut; and the existential battles of an Italian photographer who starts to wonder if war crimes are really what he signed up for, being a half Jewish Russian-Italian man.

The Shadow King is a rough reading experience, but a deeply moving one. Mengiste’s novel is not a beat-for-beat recounting of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. The Christmas Offensive is briefly referred to. A bit more time is given to the evacuation of the imperial family. Instead, we see the struggle of Hirut and Aster to become real soldiers instead of overlooked, taken-for-granted support staff who cook, clean, and patch the men up after battles. Hirut survives so much in this book that I feel so proud of what she accomplished and heart-broken for what other people inflicted on each other.

Members of the Arbegnoch, Ethiopian resistance fighters (Image via Wikicommons)

This is the first book I’ve ever read that was set in Ethiopia. It was a magnificent introduction to the country, beautifully realized and with incredible characters. I loved Mengiste’s approach to historical fiction. The plot threads are so grounded in the lived experience of history rather than checking events off of a timeline. The characters know what the stakes are, but there is a lot of human planning and mistakes. There are no amazing coincidences or deuses ex machina to make sure that the Ethiopians come out on top. The Shadow King is packed with grit, literal and metaphorical.

I strongly recommend this to fans of books that blend historical fiction with literary writing chops. Reading groups will have plenty to discuss about entitlement, patriotism, colonialism, and courage. This book is absolutely incredible.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.


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