The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

Video format

Written format

As the war begins in earnest, Hirut, Aster, and the other women long to do more than care for the wounded and bury the dead. When Emperor Haile Selassie goes into exile and Ethiopia quickly loses hope, it is Hirut who offers a plan to maintain morale. She helps disguise a gentle peasant as the emperor and soon becomes his guard, inspiring other women to take up arms against the Italians. But how could she have predicted her own personal war as a prisoner of one of Italy’s most vicious officers, who will force her to pose before Ettore’s camera?

I found some of the writing in this book stunning and wonderfully descriptive. The pace worked well and kept me interested but I did find the unusual story structure a bit of a challenge. For me the story unravels in a fragmented way, and while I eventually got used to this, I would have preferred a more conventional style.

The story itself is informative and I found myself looking up more details about Haile Selassie. We have the viewpoints of Hirut, Ettore, and Haile Sailesse.  The story is brutal, violent, cruel – and it’s not just violence between the Italians and Ethiopians at war but a cruelty between Italians, and a cruelty between Ethiopians. 

I saw a lot of the violence – both physical and sexual – as illustrating the desire for control over others by the perpetrators. The one character that seemed to me to have the least desire to have power over other people was the enigmatic Cook, who only wanted autonomy or control over her own fate. 

Mengiste is a gifted writer and on the whole I think she did a wonderful job of depicting several different perspectives of a tragic war. I found it useful to have a story like this centred on women so that when they have suffered through great violence we don’t fail to see their resilience. My English Literature tutor once told me in a lot of classic literature there are only two types of women, the one placed on the pedestal or the harlot.  I have read some more nuanced classics but that comment has come to mind in various genres – I’ve read science fiction and fantasy where that statement can be true. And even in stories like this, historical fiction about war, but here the women are nuanced. There is a lot of greyscale when it comes to morality; there can be unexpected cruelty and even more unexpected kindnesses from the least expected quarters. While I didn’t love this book, I did appreciate the author’s writing and the balanced way in which each side of this conflict is depicted. 

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