Summary and book 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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  • First Published:
    Sep 2020, 448 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2020, 448 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Cook
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About this Book

Book Summary

Shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, and named a best book of the year by the New York Times, NPR, Elle, Time, and more, The Shadow King is an "unforgettable epic from an immensely talented author who's unafraid to take risks" (Michael Schaub, NPR).

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.

First published in hardcover, Sept 2019.

1974

She does not want to remember but she is here and memory is gathering bones. She has come by foot and by bus to Addis Ababa, across terrain she has chosen to forget for nearly forty years. She is two days early but she will wait for him, seated on the ground in this corner of the train station, the metal box on her lap, her back pressed against the wall, rigid as a sentinel. She has put on the dress she does not wear every day. Her hair is neatly braided and sleek and she has been careful to hide the long scar that puckers at the base of her neck and trails over her shoulder like a broken necklace.

In the box are his letters, le lettere, ho sepolto le mie lettere, è il mio segreto, Hirut, anche il tuo segreto. Segreto, secret, meestir. You must keep them for me until I see you again. Now go. Vatene. Hurry before they catch you.

There are newspaper clippings with dates spanning the course of the war between her country and his. She knows he has arranged them from the start, 1935,...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. The Shadow King highlights the previously lesser-known role of female soldiers fighting in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (and in world conflicts more generally). To what extent do you think art is the most useful means of changing existing historical narratives? What are the advantages of using fiction to showcase new aspects of historical experience, versus nonfiction?
  2. Characters in The Shadow King are anchored by objects that carry great significance for them: Hirut's rifle, Aster's necklace, Ettore's letters. What do you think accounts for the power of these physical objects? Are there any objects in your life that hold a similar kind of strong personal significance?
  3. What do you think about Kidane's use of the nickname "Little One...
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Here are some of the comments posted about The Shadow King.
You can see the full discussion here.


Characters in The Shadow King are anchored by objects that carry great significance for them. What do you think accounts for the power of these objects? Are there any objects in your life that hold a similar personal significance?
As the situation became more and more desperate these objects took on a greater significance tying the characters back to the world of normalcy. I have the small coffee pot that my mother used each morning to make coffee with. I dont even drink ... - audrey1

How did the sections from Emperor Haile Selassie's perspective influence the narrative? Did you feel sympathy for him, anger, some other emotion?
I agree with all of the above who feel that his actions showed his limited leadership skills. Of course this was a time that others too faced the attempts of other to gain entrance into Africa. It was interesting that he liked Aida. I compared ... - Peggy H

How does Hirut subvert the idea of obedience as a survival strategy throughout the novel?
Nobody feels comfortable bound by obedience. Look what happened to Ibrahaim, whose motives for following instructions and leading the ascari in favor of the Italians. Aster always kept her own counsel and did not learn obedience. Hirute is always ... - phenkat

How does loss reverberate through the characters' lives, and how do those losses explicitly shape their actions and choices in relation to other characters?
The level of loss from the first chapter constantly left them either victims or perpetrators. I don't think there was even one character that didn't experience some sort of warped view of the world because of it. There wasn't a moment for sustained... - ylhoff

How does the theme of resurrection function throughout the novel?
I agree with Phenkat that not many outside of Ethiopia were aware of these women soldiers. Many fought side by side and died fighting for a country they loved and a people they believed in. The author's great great grandmother was one of those women ... - bookfabulous

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

While readers who approach it hoping for a straightforward work of inspiring historical fiction will be disappointed, those willing to let it take shape as what it is — a sprawling and poetic meditation on existence — will be richly rewarded. The Shadow King leverages its historical details to uncover new ways of thinking about how people arrange their inner worlds in order to preserve a sense of self. By exploring its characters' dreams, denials and constructed realities, it engages in conversation with other literature that documents the human experience on a large scale...continued

Full Review Members Only (839 words).

(Reviewed by Elisabeth Cook).

Media Reviews

The New Yorker
Capacious.… adopts the register of myth to shape an epic of nationhood and resistance.

Newsweek
In haunting and beautiful prose, Mengiste shines a light on those whose lives are not often heralded.

New York Times Book Review, Editors' Choice
Lyrical, remarkable.

Time
Unforgettable.… [A] propulsive read that captures a historical moment from a fresh perspective.

The Wall Street Journal
[The Shadow King] is written in a key of pride and exaltation, and its characters have the outsize form of national heroes.… Stirring.

Los Angeles Review of Books
A beautiful and thoughtful epic.

BookPage (starred review)
Stunning.… [Mengiste] produced a work of fiction that is epic in reach, with brilliant borrowings from the forms of classic tragedy.… The book is impossible to put down or put out of mind.

Kirkus Reviews
Mengiste is a master of characterization, and her characters reveal just who they are by their actions...A memorable portrait of a people at war—a war that has long demanded recounting from an Ethiopian point of view.

Booklist (starred review)
Monumental.… Mengiste's extraordinary characters?shrewd Kidane, militant Aster, the enigmatic cook, narcissistic Italian commander Fucelli, conflicted photographer Ettore, elusive prostitute Fifi, even haunted Selassie?epitomize the impossibly intricate ties between humanity and monstrosity, and the unthinkable, immeasurable cost of survival.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
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.

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

Reader Reviews

Carlos Cesar Lapiz/Bahrc

None
Highly recommend this profound reading. Page after page captivated by brilliant prose. I am a Vietnam Veteran and fully understand the heroic value of women in combat. Never underestimate a determined woman to fight for the freedom of her native ...   Read More

Peggy A.

Me and my Shadow
I found this book to be very intense, absorbing, and provocative in its subject matter. I was definitely transported to another time, pre WW2, and a wholly different culture. While it took the author, Maaza Mengiste, a lot of time to set up the ...   Read More

Beverly J. (Hoover, AL)

A Gem of a Story
The Shadow King is a richly textured and carefully constructed compelling must-needed work of historical fiction. As Fascist Italy invades Ethiopia in 1935, the men prepare to defend their country, but the women of Ethiopia will not be denied to ...   Read More

Susan U. (Brookfield, WI)

Strong women lead
This book reflects the brutality of war, you feel it but the language is so beautiful you can get through the brutality. The women in the book are strong and you feel their fierceness as they fight for the common cause of saving their country, their ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Fusil Gras (Wujigra) in Ethiopia

1874 Fusil Gras rifle with walnut stock and 20 inch barrel

In The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste, Hirut has a particular attachment to a rifle that her father gave her, a Wujigra, which she goes out of her way to retrieve after Kidane takes it away from her while stockpiling weapons for his army. "Wujigra" is the Ethiopian term for the Fusil Gras, a French service rifle that was manufactured in the late 19th century. It is a single-shot rifle with a reputation for being robust, as is described in Mengiste's book: "A bolt-action, 11mm rifle designed to deliver a single lethal shot with consistent accuracy, a hardy gun able to withstand cold and rain, repeated and rapid firing."

The Fusil Gras was developed as an adaptation of the breech-loading Chassepot rifle and as a response to the German...

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