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The Shadow King

by Maaza Mengiste

Books of the Month Historical Fiction Literary Fiction Sharing Diverse Voices

LoveReading View on The Shadow King

From the detailed domestic scenes dappled with loss, love, hardship and hanging on, to sweeping waves of war, the rare power of Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King creeps up on you, catches you unaware, becomes compulsive in the manner of complex classics of the ancient world.

It’s 1935 in Ethiopia and newly-orphaned Hirut is employed as a maid by an officer in Emperor Hailie Selassie’s army. In her previous life, Hirut’s father taught her to use a gun: “This, he says, you do not touch unless you are prepared. Prepared for what, she asks. He slips the bullet back into his pocket. Prepared to be something you are not.”  And this is what Hirut is prepared for when Ethiopia is invaded by Mussolini’s vengeful army. Not content to merely care for the wounded, she devises a plan and rouses women to rise up and fight. As they shift from being housewives, to nurses, to warriors, their stories are haunting, harrowing and stirring, and this novel confirms Mengiste’s status as a writer blessed with lyrical bravery and unique vision.

Head to our 'Black Lit Matters' list to find more must-read novels by black writers.

Joanne Owen

The Shadow King Synopsis

Ethiopia, 1935.

With the threat of Mussolini's army looming, recently orphaned Hirut struggles to adapt to her new life as a maid. Her new employer, Kidane, an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie's army, rushes to mobilise his strongest men before the Italians invade.

Hirut and the other women long to do more than care for the wounded and bury the dead. When the Emperor goes into exile and Ethiopia quickly loses hope, it is Hirut who offers a plan to maintain morale. But how could she have predicted her own personal war is still to come, as a prisoner of one of Italy's most vicious officers?

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The Shadow King Press Reviews

The new Toni Morrison? Maaza Mengiste certainly seems worthy of the comparison . . . Epic in scale, intimate in detail; this is one story that's sure to stay with you -

Sunday Telegraph -

Wonderful . . . The novel is an intimate portrait of human beings going about their daily lives with tensions and hardships, memories and love, which broadens out into an epic war narrative . . . The Shadow King is ambitious but effortless to read. For all the harrowing scenes, it feels hopeful and lyrical -

i -

Urgent and propulsive but also lyrical and meditative . . . An inspiring, harrowing portrait of an overlooked aspect of an overlooked conflict -

Metro -

A brilliant novel, lyrically lifting history towards myth. It's also compulsively readable. I devoured it in two days -- SALMAN RUSHDIE Set during Italy's 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, this absorbing novel spotlights the African women who went to war . . . [Mengiste's] achievement in The Shadow King is to bring to life those women, and to depict them as dynamic entities, their capabilities, limitations and beliefs evolving under duress in as fully complex a way as those of their male counterparts -

Guardian, Book of the Day -

The Shadow King is incredible. I've read nothing like it before. There is war, love, betrayal, history and the present day wrapped in the hearts and minds of complex characters. Maaza Mengiste rises as Toni Morrison rests. The baton has been passed and taken deftly -- LEMN SISSAY 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 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 -

New York Times -

Unforgettable. I suspect I won't read anything more moving this year -

The Times, Book of the Month -

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 -

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All versions of this book

ISBN: 9781838851170
Publication date: 13/08/2020
Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd
Format: Paperback

ISBN: 9781838851163
Publication date: 07/01/2020
Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd
Format: Hardback

Book Information

ISBN: 9781838851170
Publication date: 13th August 2020
Author: Maaza Mengiste
Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd
Format: Paperback
Pagination: 448 pages
Genres: Books of the Month, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Diverse Voices,
Categories: Historical fiction,

About Maaza Mengiste

Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A Fulbright Scholar and professor in the MFA in Creative Writing & Literary Translation programme at Queens College, she is the author of The Shadow King and Beneath the Lion's Gaze, named one of the Guardian's Ten Best Contemporary African Books. Her work can be found in the New Yorker, Granta, and the New York Times, among other publications. She lives in New York City. @MaazaMengiste | maazamengiste.com

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