A Finalist for the 2019 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Fiction
A gripping novel 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.
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.
About the Author
Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Maaza Mengiste received a 2020 Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Also a Fulbright Scholar and a professor at Queens College, she is the author of The Shadow King and Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, and a 2018 recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. She lives in New York City.
Lyrical, remarkable... breathtakingly skillful... The reader feels...in the steady hands of a master... Hirut [is] as indelible and compelling a hero as any I've read in years. — Namwali Serpell
A sprawling, unforgettable epic from an immensely talented author who's unafraid to take risks... [R]endered all the more effective by Mengiste's gift at creating memorable characters... The star of the novel, however, is Mengiste's gorgeous writing, which makes The Shadow King nearly impossible to put down... [O]ne of the most beautiful novels of the year.
— Michael Schaub
The Shadow King is not a story about helpless victims of colonial conquest. Against the odds, it is written in a key of pride and exaltation, and its characters have the outsize form of national heroes... Mengiste ambitiously stretches her canvas to include colliding perspectives... Stirring.
— Sam Sacks
A brilliant novel, lyrically lifting history towards myth. It’s also compulsively readable. I devoured it in two days. — Salman Rushdie, author of Quichotte
The Shadow King is a beautiful and devastating work; of women holding together a world ripping itself apart. They will slip into your dreams and overtake your memories.
— Marlon James, author of Black Leopard, Red Wolf
With epic sweep and dignity, Mengiste has lifted this struggle into legend, along with the women who fought in it. Beautiful, horrifying, elegant, and haunted, The Shadow King is a modern classic.
— Andrew Sean Greer, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Less
The Shadow King is a novel about war and history, both epic in scope and intimate in detail…Maaza Mengiste has a gift for rendering everyone in this story, resister and invader alike, with great nuance and complexity, leaving us with no room for easy judgment. A wonderful book.
— Laila Lalami, author of The Other Americans
One of the most affecting accounts of the terror of war I have ever read, all the more so for the being cloaked in the language of beauty, such that the words and their meaning burn through the senses. The Shadow King is a work borne of rage, a rage made magnificent for its compassion and the story it tells us—that in war there are no winners.
— Aminatta Forna, author of Happiness
Maaza Mengiste has given us a powerful tale of a woman warrior—not some mythical superhero, but a girl who holds on to the memory of her parents and her father’s gun and longs to do battle to avenge their loss. Reminiscent of Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior and Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women, this is a compelling story of female empowerment and an epic one at that.
— Mary Morris, author of Gateway to the Moon
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.
Mengiste again brings heart and authenticity to a slice of Ethiopian history...[She] breaks new ground in this evocative, mesmerizing account of the role of women during wartime—not just as caregivers, but as warriors defending their country.