The Shadow King ~ by Maaza Mengiste

I skimmed a lot of this book because, for one thing, parts of it were almost over-the-top violent. I used to close my eyes in movies when the violence got too much, so I can skim in books.  I don’t usually mind the violence if there’s a thematic point although that doesn’t necessarily cover everything – and I can tolerate quite a lot – Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is horrendously violent but it’s theme needs that.

The Shadow King 
by Maaza Mengiste 
2019 / (429 pages)
Read by Robin Miles 18h 9m
Rating: 9/ historical fiction 

The other reason I skimmed some is that the unfamiliar accents on the part of the narrator doing some characters was very strong – difficult to understand.  

That said, I think I got the basics and I have very mixed feelings about the book. First it’s brilliant in many ways. It will be studied in college courses for years.  

A question I saw in the results of an online search asked: Is The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste based on a true story?”  Well,  yes and no.  Mengiste did a lot of research to get what she wrote correct. I read somewhere that the book took years of research.  At the outset of WWII Italy invaded Ethiopia because the power-hungry Mussolini wanted colonies and women warriors were indeed used by the Ethiopians in their struggle to defend themselves against a powerful and ruthless enemy. Haile Selassie, the new Emperor, went into hiding in England for the duration.

Meanwhile, the main characters were invented as well as the bits about a “shadow king” of Haile Selassie not being in the UK but fighting in Ethiopia, although that may have been what was rumored. The book is a good example of historical fiction.  It’s not “nonfiction” in any way and I don’t see it as being “based on a true story.”  It’s fiction of an historical variety. 

This is good!

Apparently, the author found photos of some women warriors and that started some research and because Mengiste is a novelist, not a historian, she expanded the story beyond the documentation.  She gave some of the women in the photos names and possessions and families.  She gave them backstories and problems. She did this with both men and women. The Shadow King took about 10 years to research and write. 

It’s beautifully written story in two time frames. It opens in Addis Ababa in 1974 with a woman holding a box at a train station.  It then goes back in time to the 1930s when Hirut, a young woman then, is an orphaned girl in the service of relatives who have taken her in.  These characters present problems of their own and I have a feeling the social history might very well be accurate – it’s violent, especially against women.  But women can be powerful, too.  The family is preparing to fight alongside their countrymen as Mussolini’s Fascist Italian forces try to overpower Ethiopia for  colonial purposes. 

Mengiste is a very creative and talented stylist also -there’s a “chorus” which appears for Selassie occasionally and Aida is summoned to work on him as well. It’s like the Iliad in an Ethiopian rendition of tales of war. “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. A brilliant novel, lyrically lifting history towards myth.”

Lots of good stuff in this review:
And also this one:

So I suppose it is a wee bit less horrendously violent than At Night All Blood Is Black since that gets into war of mythical proportions with some occultist aspects added.

This book could REALLY stand two or more readings but … 
***P.S.  I’m thinking I want to move away from books of rage with women as much a part of the terror as anyone.  I need lighter fare more often as I move through my 8th decade and as this Covid stuff lingers.

This entry was posted in 2023 Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Shadow King ~ by Maaza Mengiste

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    Reading your review reminded me that yes, it is violent.
    But to a purpose, I thought…


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