The Shadow King: Book summary and reviews of The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

The Shadow King

A Novel

by Maaza Mengiste

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste X
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
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  • Publishes in USA 
    Sep 24, 2019
    448 pages
    Genre: Historical Fiction

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Book Summary

"A brilliant novel, lyrically lifting history towards myth. It's also compulsively readable. I devoured it in two days." - Salman Rushdie

In 1935, orphaned servant Hirut struggles to adapt to her new household as Ethiopia faces Mussolini's looming invasion. As the battles begin in earnest, Hirut and other women must care for the wounded. But when Emperor Haile Selassie goes into exile and Ethiopia is about to lose hope, Hirut helps to disguise a gentle peasant as the emperor to keep the fight alive. She becomes his guard, inspiring women to join the war against fascism.

In this extraordinary, beautifully told epic, Hirut overcomes rape, violence, and imprisonment, finding the strength to fight for her country's freedom and her own. Maaza Mengiste breathes life into complicated characters on both sides of the battle line, shaping a searing story of ordinary women and the advanced army they courageously opposed. Set against the first real conflict of World War II, The Shadow King is a heartrending, indelible exploration of what it means to be a woman at war.

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Reviews

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Reader Reviews

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Joy E. (Rockville, MD)

Mythic Tale of a Forgotten War
The Shadow King is a beautifully written story of the war fought by the Ethiopians against the invading Italians in 1935. Mostly known by Westerners for the unsuccessful plea for help by Ethiopia's leader Haile Selasse to the League of Nations, this war was a lopsided and heart-breaking struggle in pastoral corner of Africa.

Kidane is a local leader who gathers a ragtag army to fight against the ferenji or foreigners seeking to conquer their land. Hirut is a young, courageous servant in Kidane's household in the rural countryside. Slowly, inexorably, Hirut and Kidane's wife Aster take larger roles in the guerrilla warfare. Their inevitable failure unrolls slowly in poetic language that has the reader wishing for a different ending.

The heroism of strong and proud men and women is wonder to read.

Borderlass, Belmont, MA

An Exciting Addition to Feminist and African Literature
This novel is defined by the sheer emotionality of the reading experience depicting Ethiopia's pursuit of independence from fascist Italian occupation. As one turns each page, one discovers yet another facet of war and how one terror passes only to yield to another of greater degree. The intensity of feelings these scenes promote are not intended to comfort the reader - rather to immerse one in some of one's worst nightmares - a disquieting experience beyond the capacities of sensitive readers. The author's clever use of dualities in style (e.g., lyrical prose describing violence) and in substance (class, gender, economics, and qualities of leadership - or its absence) are among its other hallmarks.

This book would appeal to any reader of classic feminist or African literature and should be required reading for any government major or careerist needing a foundation in the roots of conflict. This brilliantly constructed novel, timewise, serves as a pre-quel to Mengiste's prior novel, "Beneath the Lion's Gaze," which captured the ensuing years of constant instability and combat in Ethiopia from a mostly male perspective. This - her latest - "The Shadow King" will be studied by and for women in war zones for its uniquely feminist discourse.

Rebecca R. (Western USA)

A Stunning Epic Tale
Although there have been many books written about or set in the time frame of World War Two, Maaza Mengiste's epic story is unique. There's no one book to which THE SHADOW KING can be compared; this is a 'Hotel Rwanda,' 'Gone With the Wind,' and "All Quiet on the Western Front,' rolled into one but set in Ethiopia and told with an emphasis on the female perspective of Hirut, an African enslaved to other Africans. Woven into this story is also the history of Emperor Haile Selassie who has loved his position of wealth and power and can not come to grips with the disintegration of his position.
There are so many powerful sentences that make a reader stop and think about the truth contained in the words that you will never finish the book if you stop to log them all. Another strength of this book is its unflinching honesty about the ravages of war, from the rape of women to the important part that female fighters played in Ethiopia as Mussolini stepped up his quest for world power and personal glory at any cost, to the insensitivity of some wartime photographers, along with the horror of brave warriors fighting with spears against tanks and planes with mustard gas. At 419 pages (in my ARC) and a smaller font than many books these days, this is not a book for the faint of heart, but it deserves to be read!

Nicole S. (St. Paul, MN)

Gripping!
Maaza Mengiste had me hooked with the first page. What an incredible story. I found myself googling the historical pieces of the book to see if they were true and I was enthralled by the unraveling of this historical fiction. Mengiste Ms writing makes the foreign seem universal and the universal seem intimately unique. I can't wait to read her other works!

BETH CUMMINGS

Disturbing History - The shadow King
I wish I could say that I loved this book because the subject matter is something we should be aware of, but I didn't love it. Maaza Mengiste's writing is full of detail and poetic descriptions, however the descriptions were often so violent and horrific that it was hard to keep reading. I had almost no awareness of the Ethiopian vs Italian part of WWII and I'm glad I read the book since it gave me new information. I wish that she had been a bit more straightforward with the plot - jumping from character to character with little connection made for complicated reading. I hope when the final version comes out that they opt to use quotation marks to delineate speakers as that would help clear up some of the complexity. It could be a good book group discussion book, if the group can tackle long and difficult subjects.

Florence H. (Laguna Woods, CA)

Shadow King
War is described in Shadow King as "an outpouring of evil." The photographer, Ettore Navarro, is "an archivist of obscenities." Despite these truths and a personal aversion to war I still found this book to be a riveting account of a time in Ethiopia and the role women could play even though they might also be abused. One value of a book is that it stimulates an interest in knowing more. I'll be looking into Ethiopian history in the future.

...6 more reader reviews

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Author Information

Maaza Mengiste Author Biography

Photo: Miriam Berkley

Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and lived in Nigeria and Kenya before settling in the United States. Her debut novel, the award-winning Beneath the Lion's Gaze, was selected by The Guardian as one of the 10 best contemporary African books. It has been translated into several languages. Her second novel, The Shadow King will be published in September 2019.

Her fiction and nonfiction writing can be found in The Guardian, The New York Times, BBC Radio 4, Granta, and Lettre International, among other places. She is a Fulbright Scholar with fellowships from the Emily Harvey Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Prague Summer Program, and Yaddo. Mengiste was a Runner-up for the 2011 Dayton Literary Peace Prize, as well as a finalist for a Flaherty-...

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  • Beneath the Lion's Gaze jacket
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