THE SHADOW KING by Maaza Mengiste


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An action-filled historical novel by Ethiopian American writer Mengiste (Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, 2010).

The Italians who invaded Ethiopia in 1935 under the orders of the man whom the conquered people insist on calling, in quiet resistance, Mussoloni came aching to avenge a loss they had suffered 40 years earlier. They might have remembered how fiercely the Ethiopians fought. Certainly the protagonist of Mengiste’s story, a young woman named Hirut, does. In a brief prologue, we find her returning to the capital, where she has not been for decades, in 1974, in order to find an audience with the emperor, Haile Selassie, who is just about to be overthrown. She has a mysterious box, inside of which, Mengiste memorably writes, “are the many dead that insist on resurrection.” The box comes from the war nearly 40 years earlier, and it is an artifact full of meaning. Hirut was nothing if not resourceful back then: A servant in a wealthy household, she becomes a field nurse, but as the war deepens, she takes up arms and becomes a fighter herself, “the brave guard of the Shadow King”—the Shadow King being a villager who bore a reasonable enough resemblance to the emperor, who has gone into hiding, to be dressed like him, taught his mannerisms, and sent out in public in order to rally the dispirited Ethiopian people. "There are oaths that hold this world together,” Mengiste writes, “promises that cannot be left undone or unfulfilled.” Such is the oath that the emperor broke by fleeing the fight. Mengiste is a master of characterization, and her characters reveal just who they are by their actions; always of interest to watch is the Italian colonel Carlo Fucelli, who is determined to win glory for himself, and a soldato named Ettore Navarra, who has learned Amharic and wants nothing more than to live a quiet life, preferably with Hirut by his side. Hirut herself is well rounded and thoroughly fascinating—and not a person to be crossed.

A memorable portrait of a people at war—a war that has long demanded recounting from an Ethiopian point of view.

Pub Date: Sept. 24th, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-393-08356-9
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2019