The Shadow King, by Maaza Mengiste

The Shadow King, by Maaza Mengiste
Published by Canongate Books, 17th January 2020 (first published 24th September 2019)
Genres: Historical fiction
Format: Paperback
Source: Gift

Trigger warnings: War atrocities, sexual assault


The threat of invasion looms over Ethiopia in 1935 as Mussolini masses his forces at the borders. Oblivious to all of this, recently orphaned Hirut is struggling to adapt to her new life as a maid. She will not remain sheltered for long, however, as her new employer is a general in the Emperor’s army and is mustering his men.

The women accompany the army, tasked with cooking, tending to the wounded and burying the dead. But they long to do more to help defend their homeland. As the Emperor flees the country, morale is low, but Hirut comes up with a plan to boost everyone’s fighting spirit. Little does she know that she will need all of her strength and spirit to overcome what the war has in store for her.

My thoughts

This is a very powerful book which shines a light on the significant role that women played during Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. As Hirut says: “the story of war has always been a masculine story” and the history books rarely reflect the whole story. The courage and determination displayed by the women in the Ethiopian army is remarkable and beautifully captured here.

¨The writing style is particularly evocative, although I found it a little difficult to get used to at first. However, once I had adjusted, I found that the lyrical, almost poetic, style perfectly captured the story and the characters’ thoughts and feelings.

One of the characters, Ettore, is a Jewish photographer with the Italian army, tasked with immortalising the many achievements and conquests of his superiors. Throughout the book, there are descriptions of his photographs and I found this really interesting. Rather than including actual photographs, of which I am sure there must be many in historical archives, the author chose to simply describe them. This really allows the reader to see the scenes in their mind’s eye and form a personal image. This was not something I had come across before in my reading and I really loved it.

I received this book as a Christmas present and I had not heard about it before, but it tied in perfectly with my reading for Black History Month in February and my 2021 Reading Women Challenge. The prompt is “a book with a cover designed by a woman”, and this stunning cover was designed by Lynn Buckley. She has also designed many other beautiful book covers, including Untamed, by Glennon Doyle which was one of my favourite books of 2020.

My rating: 4/5

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