Review

Review: The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

“What the mouth says has nothing to do with what someone means. It is the face that speaks.”

Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 448
Published: 24 September, 2019
Rate: 4 ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Goodreads Synopsis

With the threat of Mussolini’s army looming, recently orphaned Hirut struggles to adapt to her new life as a maid in Kidane and his wife Aster’s household. Kidane, an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army, rushes to mobilize his strongest men before the Italians invade. His initial kindness to Hirut shifts into a flinty cruelty when she resists his advances, and Hirut finds herself tumbling into a new world of thefts and violations, of betrayals and overwhelming rage. Meanwhile, Mussolini’s technologically advanced army prepares for an easy victory. Hundreds of thousands of Italians—Jewish photographer Ettore among them—march on Ethiopia seeking adventure.

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?

What follows is a gorgeously crafted and unputdownable exploration of female power, with Hirut as the fierce, original, and brilliant voice at its heart. In incandescent, lyrical prose, Maaza Mengiste breathes life into complicated characters on both sides of the battle line, shaping a heartrending, indelible exploration of what it means to be a woman at war.

My Take
I read The Shadow King back in January and randomly I find myself thinking about it. Not the whole back but certain interactions and scenes. I’ll be honest, it’s not an easy book to read, and it’s not the kind of book you rush through. Oh no. With The Shadow King you take your time, and I’m so glad I did.
The Shadow King is a heartbreaking yet captivating read. Maaza Mengiste writing is brilliant. I was drawn in from the first page, deeply moved by the plot and the promise of yet to come.

The Shadow King is basically a war story, talking about Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, meaning its research heavy which I really appreciated. There’s little known about that time and I felt like I was in a history class. I had moments where I paused my reading to go to Google to learn more. By now you know I love history and every time historical and knowing more so you can imagine how much of a treat The Shadow King was for me.

“…Hirut recognizes for the first time that some memories should be barricaded by others, that those strong enough must hold the others at bay.”

The Shadow King is both plot and character based and one thing I appreciate about Maaza Mengiste is how she brings out the distinct personalities of the characters both major and minor ones making them so unforgettable. It’s a big book with its fair amount of characters and I remember(ed) all of them.

One thing is for sure is that The Shadow King is an amazing book, rich in writing and character but unfortunately it’s not for everyone. If you don’t like Historical Fiction or detailed books then I don’t think you’ll appreciate it as much. I’d say give the book a chance, and go in with an open mind. I loved the book so much and I hope you will too. (it’s okay if you don’t 🙂)


Have you read The Shadow King? What did you think about it?

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