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The Shadow King

3.70  ·  Rating details ·  11,327 ratings  ·  1,641 reviews
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 mobilize 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 Emperor Haile Se
Hardcover, 448 pages
Published September 24th 2019 by W. W. Norton Company
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Average rating 3.70  · 
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 ·  11,327 ratings  ·  1,641 reviews

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Nov 23, 2019 rated it liked it
Well. This is a story that deserves to be told. I learned more about Ethiopian history and culture than I knew before. There is some wonderful - sometimes stunning - descriptive writing. But I would remove the book jacket promise of this being "unputdownable". For me it was often an effort to pick up again. I gradually began to resent the book's claim on my time and credulity, and that is never a good sign.

My biggest gripe is that I found the writing overwrought in a way that was suffocating. Hi
On the Booker Prize Shortlist!!

Maaza Mengiste's blend of poetic and lyrical historical fiction and fact that focuses on little known aspects of the beginnings of WW2 is an extraordinary and gripping literary accomplishment but nevertheless proved to be a challenge to read. It has echoes of Shakespearean plays and elements of classic Greek plays with its use of a collective chorus speaking for all with one voice, but the deployment of a lack of puntuation in parts of the storytelling made reading
Nenia ✨ I yeet my books back and forth ✨ Campbell

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DNF @ p. 194

This book is set during WWII, under the reign of Mussolini, and it's about the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. There are three main characters: Kidane is a soldier in Selassie's army; Aster is his wife, who married him as a child and resents him to this day; and Hirut is their servant, an orphan who ends up becoming something more when her cruel employers drive her to desperation.

Friends and neighbors, I wanted to love this b
Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer
Now shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.

“She does not want to remember but she is here and memory is gathering bones”

I bought this book as I felt (not least to the back cover blurb by Lemn Sissay) and had predicted that it had a very strong chance of making the 2020 Booker longlist. I started, but did not finish, the book before the publication of the longlist confirmed my hunch, and now (just over 2 weeks later) having read the rest of the longlist returned to it and completed it (and th
Roman Clodia
Nov 23, 2019 rated it liked it
This is undoubtedly epic in scope and intention but I sadly found it slow and oddly uninvolving. It takes a long time for the story outlined in the blurb to emerge and I thought there would be more attention to women in war than there actually is. Mengiste's prose is packed with similes: some will find it lyrical, others a bit tiresome - a well-placed image, for me, is more memorable than a host on every page.

I like the sophisticated narrative style that shifts to include a chorus of voices, de
Jenny (Reading Envy)
I ended this book in tears and I'm not sure I can articulate why. It starts and ends in 1974, with an old woman walking with a box of letters and photographs. The majority of the book is about the second Italian invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s, the emperor living in exile, and the women who fought to protect the shadow king. This is on the shortlist for the Booker Prize and is a strong contender.

Those who liked the artifact story structure of Lost Children Archive will like how the author uses
Shortlisted for the Booker prize 2020.

What he knows is this: there is no past, there is no “what happened,” there is only the moment that unfolds into the next, dragging everything with it, constantly renewing. Everything is happening at once.

Every account of history is conditioned by a before and an after. This is a story set in the 'during', in that point of convergence that evades any attempts at comprehension. It's a story of people that traditional accounts of history would rather pretend d
Katia N
Sep 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Reading this, I remembered a line long time forgotten, but the line that has helped me to go through a lot when I was younger. I am not even sure where it is taken from. It might be from “King Lear” or it might be from "Mary Stuart" by Schiller. I cannot find it through the search as I know it only in Russian. But it is something like that:

“Here, they might treat me indignantly but they will never manage to deprive me of my dignity.”

In those days, I called up this phrase when faced with a pot
Deservedly shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020

Another impressive contender on what is looking a very strong Booker longlist.

Mengiste's story of women fighting in Ethiopia's war against Mussolini was inspired by her own great-grandmother who fought in Haile Selassie's army, but this is very much a fictional story set in a real historical context.

The main protagonist is Hirut, a downtrodden servant girl and orphan. The first half of the book is quite slow moving, establishing the complex nuance
"Tell them, Hirut, we were the Shadow King. We were those who stepped into a country left dark by an invading plague and gave new hope to Ethiopia's people."

The writing in The Shadow King is glorious. Mostly set around the second Italo-Ethiopian War, it exemplifies the courage of the women who served Ethiopia with steadfast honor. A story that is so rarely told, it was in part inspired by Mengiste's own great grandmother. As the eldest child in her family she volunteered herself to go to war
Aug 16, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I can't in all honesty say that I enjoyed this book. I thought it was going to be a sure bet, historical fiction with heroic women fighting for their country.
I was completely overwhelmed by the timeline, and the people and the war and the politics. We visit the minds of so many men and women and I failed to sink my teeth into any of it. An important book and a learning experience, but as I say, I didn't enjoy the scope and detail.
Jul 16, 2021 rated it really liked it
4.5 stars
An account of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s, very loosely based on the experiences of the author’s grandparents. Mengiste focuses on the role of women soldiers. Haile Selassie plays his part as does a look alike. This is about the importance of memory. It starts and ends in the 1970s, although most of it is set in 1935-7. Mengiste’s characters are powerfully drawn, even the two primary Italian characters. The story of war is often masculine, but this was not true for Eth
Oct 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: giveaway-wins
4.5⭐️s. Wow!! So let me just start by saying this: Maaza Mengiste is an INCREDIBLY talented writer! The Shadow King is set during the second war between Italy & Ethiopia in 1935. The first war between the two countries occurred in 1895 & when Italy lost it was hugely embarrassing, not only because it was the first loss by a European nation to an African country, but also because it left Ethiopia the only African nation, in the Horn of Africa, not under European rule at the time. In 1935 Italy wa ...more
Oct 03, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.

The backbone of the narrative is the war that was fought between Ethiopia and Italy when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, with Mussolini a fascist and megalomaniac, wanting to erase the shame of their defeat at the hands of the Ethiopians years ago, and establish his new Roman empire.

However, the story revolves around the women who fought in the war and the integral part they played and yet seem to have been forgotten by the historians.

Although the story is
War is absolute hell and if you don't believe that just ask a woman. Wow this was an uncomfortable book. Ethiopia was in the middle of a war with Italy. Citizens had taken up arms to support their emperor Haile Selassie. Warrior citizens aka rebels have no rules of war or ethics to uphold. Culturally Ethiopia is pretty much in line with most countries in that the patriarchy must be upheld no matter who is ruling. What that means is that for women, you fall whim to both sides. This book was prett ...more
Sep 05, 2020 rated it liked it
2.5, rounded up.

To be completely candid, I would NEVER have read this book if not for its Booker nomination and my wanting to be a 'completist' of the longlist (for the 7th year in a row), since the subject matter held zero appeal for me. This was more due to the fact that I can name on one FINGER the number of war novels I have truly enjoyed, rather than its Ethiopian setting, or feminist bona fides - although those weren't great incentives for me either. Although I wouldn't say I exactly went
Lou (nonfiction fiend)
The Shadow King is an exquisitely lyrical fact meets fiction historical epic set at the beginning of World War II. It charts Italian fascist Benito Mussolini’s imperialist dream as he invaded Ethiopia on October 3, 1935, with the intention of making it an Italian colony. This act of aggression shook the country to its core and forced Emperor Haile Selassie into exile. Mussolini knew that Ethiopia had little to no chance of winning against the superior weapons and vast numbers of highly trained s ...more
Aug 03, 2020 rated it really liked it
The real emperor of this country is on his farm tilling the tiny plot of land next to hers. He has never worn a crown and lives alone and has no enemies. He is a quiet man who once led a nation against a steel beast, and she was his most trusted soldier: the proud guard of the Shadow King. Tell them Hirut. There is no time but now. She can hear the dead growing louder: we must be heard. We must be remembered. We must be known. We will not rest until we have been mourned. She opens the box.

Aug 11, 2020 rated it really liked it
Booker Prize Longlist 2020. Mengiste introduces us to two fierce women warriors that fought against the invading Italian troops in Ethiopia during WWII. We meet the two women early in this lyrically-written tale when they argue over a necklace that Kidane gave as a wedding gift to Aster. Hirut has been relegated to be a servant in Kidane’s household when her parents died. Hirut found the necklace and buried it in preparation of running away. Both of these women demonstrate their warrior natures ...more
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020
DNF @25 %
The topic - the Second Italo-Ethiopian War - is certainly interesting, but I just can't bring myself to care about this novel, so I'll do what I rarely resort to: I'll abandon this text. Life is short, my TBR is long.
Aug 21, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audio, 2020

The Shadow King promises to tell the story of Ethiopia's forgotten women soldiers, doubly overlooked for their origin and their gender, who bravely fought alongside men against the Italian occupation of Ethopia during fascism. That struck me as an enormously fascinating premise : despite having lived in Italy and despite having read a great deal about fascism and WW2 from a number of perspectives, I know shockingly little about Italy's colonial war of oppression in Africa and even less abou
Eric Anderson
Oct 29, 2020 rated it liked it
One of the reasons I enjoy reading great historical fiction is that it illuminates periods of the past that I was totally unaware of. Most of my understanding of the events surrounding WWII are centred around an American and English perspective. So prior to Mengiste's “The Shadow King” I had no knowledge of Mussolini's 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, one of the last sovereign African countries at that time. As Mengiste has explained in interviews, the Second Italo-Ethiopian War is well documented but ...more
“War has no woman's face”, already noted Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich. Maaza Mengistu presents her own version of this, based on the history of her homeland Ethiopia, but in a very different way. While Alexievich dryly registered the testimonies of dozens of women and only intervened in the composition and style, Mengiste offers an almost completely fictionalized story, in a truly epic style. As others have already written (my GR-friend Orsidomondo for instance), you kind of find yours ...more
John Banks
Aug 01, 2020 rated it really liked it
Booker 2020 Shortlisted

This is a powerful and fine work of literature. It offers a thoughtful and moving account of the colonial war in the 1930s between Italy and Ethiopia by focusing on the perspectives and experiences of proud Ethiopian women warriors who join the men and even surpass them with their resilience to take the fight to the invaders. A strength of this book for me was a very considered and nuanced reflection on the relationships among colonised and coloniser, especially through t
Oct 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
I love a good story, especially when it’s wrapped inside an historical novel. Novelists, please transport me to another place, another time so that I can momentarily forget the United States of 2019. Fortunately, the past two years have brought several excellent historical novels. For me, the very best among them are Edward Carey’s Little, Daniel Mason’s The Winter Soldier, Stella Tillyard’s The Great Level, and Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys; Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King belongs on this ...more
Aug 03, 2020 rated it it was ok
A photograph functions as proof that a moment in time has happened. I am making this statement because Maaza Mengiste’s novel utilises the concept of photographs extensively. I’ll get to that later.

The book open in 1974, Ethiopia and Hirute has to deliver a box containing letters and photographs. She suddenly drifts off to 1935 where a number of events occurred, which are connected to the box’s contents. Namely Italy’s second invasion of Ethiopia and Emperor Haile Selassie’s exile.

This is no ord
I hope this book is submitted for the Women's Prize and the Booker. It's incredibly well-written historical fiction. Gorgeous words can, in fact, go with war and ugly topics. The use of "photos" (painted with words except the very first one) is brilliant and never weird or overtly experimental. It makes perfect sense and fits into the story while serving up one of the main characters of the novel and a way into the invading Italian forces. Technologically advanced, they expected to roll over Eth ...more
Jan 29, 2022 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a full and complex book. Passages and passages are gorgeous. It takes an interesting moment in time and brings it to life, from the before to the after. The third person present tense had a strange effect on me, both the distance and the immediacy of a dream. My favorite parts were from the perspective of the protagonist’s, Hirut – but this is not a personal story. It is one about the dualities of society: male vs. female, Ethiopian vs. Italian, Jewish vs. Christian; privileged vs. survi ...more
Jan 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
As rich as any story I’ve ever read, Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King was a wonder. About Hirut, a young girl orphaned by cruel circumstance, who finds herself fighting so much more than just facist Italy in the war of 1935 to 1937, this book is a tribute to very real women that fought triumphantly, and at great cost, in this very real war on Ethiopian soil. This book really explores the coming of age of a child who is forced to see that she cannot hold on to everything her parents gave her, tha ...more
Never Without a Book
This book is brilliant. The writing phenomenal. You got to read this.
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Maaza Mengiste is a novelist and essayist. Her debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, was selected by the Guardian as one of the 10 best contemporary African books and named one of the best books of 2010 by Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe and other publications. Her fiction and nonfiction can be found in The New Yorker, Granta, the Guardian, the New York Times, BBC Radio,and Lettre Internat ...more

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7 likes · 1 comments
“what is forged into memory tucks itself into bone and muscle. It will always be there and it will follow us to the grave.” 5 likes
“She is a soldier trapped inside a barbed-wire fence, but she is still at war and the battlefield is her own body, and perhaps, she has come to realize as a prisoner, that is where it has always been.” 4 likes
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