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The Shadow King

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

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  • Booker Prize 2020

By Maaza Mengiste

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12 reviews

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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 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.

But how could she have predicted her own personal war, still to come, as a prisoner of one of Italy’s most vicious officers?The Shadow King is a gorgeously crafted and unputdownable exploration of female power, and what it means to be a woman at war.

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06 Nov 2020

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We were all really excited to read this one, as it’s a piece of history none of us really knew anything about. I hate to say it but… we didn’t love it. There was a lot going on, and many of us found it hard to keep track. Just as you were getting into the story of one character, it jumped over to somebody else, which made for a confusing read.

Accessibility is a big part of our book club, but some of the language used and the lack of speech punctuation made this hard work for many of us. However, those who gave up reading and switched over to listening to the Audiobook said that this isn’t so much of a problem, and found the book more enjoyable that way!

The descriptions in this book are quite beautiful, often lyrical in places, however some of us found it to be a little overdone, as it took something away from the story. It was interesting for us to learn about a part of history we previously knew nothing about, but overall, this wasn’t a big scorer for us.

01 Nov 2020


Sounds and smells and sights painted well to imerse me into Ethiopia and allow for a less than warm if not bleak narrative of a dark time in history. I enjoyed the journey but do not be deceived by the jolly cover!

01 Nov 2020

Ros Buxton

I was looking forward to reading this book because it is a subject I do not know much about and was listed for the Booker Prize. Unfortunately, I found it very hard to read, especially because of the lack of punctuation and I found it hard to have any sympathy, with any of the characters. I was disappointed that I could not engage more with the book and finish reading it.

31 Oct 2020


A novel about war and the individuals involved in it. It covers the wide sweep of battles and intimate portraits of the people and their relationships. It shines a light on the role of the women soldiers both in the war and in their personal lives. It is a beautifully written book based on truth and leaves the reader with much to consider. Very powerful.

31 Oct 2020


I read this book as part of a reading group.
Mengiste uses carefully crafted prose to introduce an overlooked theme of women and their roles in conflict- both domestic and national. This is generally shown in the most brutal circumstances.
An intriguing running theme is the characters quest for their own identity within their family history. Perhaps something that is on the mind of many in these uncertain times?
I enjoyed the portrayal of the flaws and motivation of the characters but initially struggled with the scant details given on them, particularly with switches between languages.
Overall, although it was a challenging journey for us all, I would recommend this book for a reading group as it provided a great platform for discussion.

31 Oct 2020


I enjoyed the Shadow King - it is a story with so many layers that I know I could read it several more times and find different twists and meanings. This is emphasised through the different narratives throughout bringing a number of different perspectives to the story. The subject matter is obviously difficult, but I found the lyrical tone to the writing counterbalanced some of that, softening some of the hard edges. I liked the way it shone a light on women and the part that women play in war - often written out of the history books. There was female comradeship throughout the book, but without sentimentalism or even a strong sense that the characters liked each other. I would definitely recommend this book to others, and I will be re-reading it.

30 Oct 2020


I was looking forward to reading The Shadow as it was the book on the Booker Prize short list that most intrigued me with its promised combination of momentous history, Ethipoian culture and a powerful personal story. I have to say that I struggled - the lack of punctuation made the going difficult, I found the perpetual shifts of perspective and voice disconcerting and irritating, and I struggled to really connect with any of the characters, even Hirut. Maybe this was because each character was so complex - and we certainly trawled through everyone’s history - but some personal empathy would have carried me through the brutal narrative.

Mengiste’s language is very lyrical, often beautiful, but for me that didn’t make up for the fact that the shadow king episode didn’t occur, disappointingly, until mid -way through the novel, making the first half a very difficult read. The second half became easier, with more of a plot and some glimpses of positivity and a reasonable denouement.

Overall, this book wasn’t for me. I finished it out of sheer doggedness, but was glad to move onto something more positive and, I admit, less challenging.

29 Oct 2020


The Shadow King is a novel set in Ethiopia in 1935, based around the plight of women at the time who wanted to do more towards the war effort. For someone who is new to reading books about war (and also books by black authors), I was looking forward to getting stuck in to reading and see where the story went.

Mengiste has a unique writing style that really sets the scene of the compound that Hirut lives within with Aster and Kidane. This level of description grabs the reader, however, I found the lack of punctuation to denote change of character speech difficult to follow, and frustrating at times.
I struggled to keep myself interested in the story, and felt that it could have been quicker paced. As the book went along, I didn't feel excited to find out what happens next.

I really wanted to love The Shadow King, but found it hard going to read and the subject matter boring. So much so, that I did not finish it.

29 Oct 2020

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It can be difficult to continue reading any book that engages with unrelenting brutal themes, unless it is redeemed by the quality of the writing and its character development. Such a book is The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste. In a country where female oppression and slavery was rife, the narrative follows the events of the 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and the brutalising horrors of war brought by the Mussolini’s Fascist forces, as they rampaged through the country, facing Ethiopian men and boys armed with spears and some ancient guns, after their Emperor fled to England and sought refuge in Bath.
In a lyrical narrative the book describes the emotions of the protagonists, as the women accompanied their menfolk to support them. The suffering of the women is lived through the experiences of an orphaned girl, Hirut, a servant forced to follow her employer, and Ethiopian general. It is Hirut who sees a close resemblance to the Emperor Haile Selassie in a young peasant, Minim – the eponymous shadow king. She and her mistress, Aster, secretly become bodyguards to this God-like double of their Emperor. Minim, dressed in the real Emperor’s clothes and riding a white stallion, galvanises his fellow countrymen to resistance, rallying the villagers to oppose the army of the cruel Italian general Carlo Fucelli. Fucelli captures the two women, imprisons them, and orders the Jewish war photographer, Ettore, to take pictures of them naked for use in propaganda. They gain their freedom when the Ethiopians overrun the Italian camp.
In constructing her narrative, the author draws both on her knowledge of her homeland and on her family history, as her grandfather fought against the Italians. Her description of the countryside is vivid, and her unforgettable characters unfold first in a prologue leading to her three main sections, Invasion, Resistance and Return, before ending with a satisfying epilogue. The Shadow King brings these women to life, and shows how their capabilities, limitations and beliefs develop under the brutal pressures of combat.

29 Oct 2020


I was really excited to read this book, despite the genre and historical setting being very different to the type which I usually enjoy reading. Maybe this is because of the book being shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, because I was looking forward to the learning experience of this time period or simply because of the beautiful cover.
However, I found the timeline, prose and the quick switches between characters very overwhelming. Just as I was enjoying a scene, it would quickly move forwards, resulting in me failing to sink my teeth into any of it. I also found the writing style difficult to comprehend at times, I had to re-read sections of the text due to the lack of speech punctuation.
Unfortunately, it was a DNF for me.

27 Oct 2020


This is the story of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and the Ethiopians’ struggle to form an army and fightback, with particular emphasis on the involvement of women, inspired by the author’s own great grandmother’s involvement. After the fleeing of Emperor Haile Selassie they raise up their own ‘shadow king’ to give them a figurehead behind which to try and unite. 

This book is very bleak at times, even more than you might expect for a book about war, but it is interesting to learn more about the history of this time and the themes which it explores.

There are lots of questions of identity in this book and it is fascinating how this is explored, whether the character sees their identity as coming from their nationality or from their parents or their employers or their name or their status in society. Two characters assume alternative names in different situations to either preserve their identities or take on new ones, interestingly both becoming names meaning lion.     

 In some ways I was expecting a story of more girl power joining in united against a common enemy, but this story is actually far more complicated than that. Hirut, the main character, is in some ways a brave hero and soldier, but in other ways she is a victim fighting her own personal battles, against Ethiopians as well as Italians, and lines are blurred as to who is a friend and who an enemy. It is interesting to find out who will ultimately win her compassion and who she will be unable to forgive.

27 Oct 2020


There is a lot to admire in The Shadow King. The quality of the writing is very good and it is clear that each word has been chosen deliberately and carefully. The book gave me insight into an aspect of Ethiopian history of which I had no understanding before. Unfortunately, however, I didn't enjoy The Shadow King. The abundance of fine writing was not matched, for me, with engaging storytelling. The characters were difficult to relate to and I didn't have a sense of wanting to find out what happened next. The story was almost unremittingly bleak and violent and the lack of hope or warmth made it hard to continue. Speech was not framed by speech marks which made it unnecessarily difficult, at times, to follow who was speaking when. I really wanted to like this book more than I did.

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