Excerpt from The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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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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  • First Published:
    Sep 2019, 448 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2020, 448 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Cook
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She feels the first threads of a familiar fear. I am Hirut, she reminds herself, daughter of Getey and Fasil, born on a blessed day of harvest, beloved wife and loving mother, a soldier. She releases a breath. It has taken so long to get here. It has taken almost forty years of another life to begin to remember who she had once been. The journey back began like this: with a letter, the first she has ever received:

Cara Hirut, They tell me that I have finally found you. They tell me you married and live in a place too small for maps. This messenger says he knows your village. He says he will deliver this to you and bring me back your message. Please come to Addis. Hurry. There is unrest here and I must leave. I have no place to go but Italy. Tell me when to meet you at the station. Be careful, they have risen against the emperor. Please come. Bring the box. Ettore.

It is dated with the ferenj date: 23 April 1974.

The doors open again and this time, it is one of those soldiers she has seen scattered along the path to this city. A young man who lets noise tumble in over his shoulder. He is carrying a new rifle slung on his back carelessly. His uniform is unpatched and untorn. It is free of dirt and suited for his size. He is too eager-eyed to have ever held a dying compatriot, too sharp with his movements to have ever known real fatigue.

"Land to the tiller! Revolutionary Ethiopia!" he shouts, and the air in the station flees the room. He lifts his gun with a child's clumsiness, aware of being observed. He points to the photograph of Emperor Haile Selassie just above the entrance. "Down with the emperor!" he shouts, swinging his gun from the wall to the back of the nervous station.

The waiting room is crowded, full of those who want to leave the roiling city. They breathe in and shrink away from this uniformed boy straining toward manhood. Hirut looks at the picture of Emperor Haile Selassie: a dignified, delicate-boned man stares into the camera, somber and regal in his military uniform and medals. The soldier, too, glances up, left with nothing to do but hear his own voice echo back. He shifts awkwardly, then turns and races out the door.

The dead pulse beneath the lid. For so long, they have been rising and crumbling in the face of her anger, giving way to the shame that still stuns her into paralysis. She can hear them now telling her what she already knows:

The real emperor of this country is on his farm tilling the tiny plot of land next to hers. He has never worn a crown and lives alone and has no enemies. He is a quiet man who once led a nation against a steel beast, and she was his most trusted soldier: the proud guard of the Shadow King. Tell them, Hirut. There is no time but now.

She can hear the dead growing louder: We must be heard. We must be remembered. We must be known. We will not rest until we have been mourned. She opens the box.


There are two bundles of pictures, each tied with the same delicate blue string. He has written her name in loose-jointed handwriting on one, the letters ballooning across the paper folded over the stack and held in place by string. Hirut unties it and two photos slide out, sticking together from age. One is of the French photographer who roamed the northern highlands taking photos, a thin slip of a man with a large camera. On the back of the picture it reads, Gondar, 1935. This is what we know of this man: He is a former draftsman from Albi, a failed painter with a slippery voice and small blue eyes. He holds no importance except what memory allows. But he is in the box, and he is one of the dead, and he insists on his right to be known. What we will say because we must: there is also a photograph of Hirut taken by this Frenchman. A portrait shot while he visited the home of Aster and Kidane and requested a picture of the servants to trade with other photographers or exchange for film. She turns away from it. She does not want to see her picture. She wants to close the box to shut us up. But it is here and this younger Hirut also refuses a quiet grave.

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Excerpted from The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste. Copyright © 2020 by Maaza Mengiste. Excerpted by permission of W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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