THE PLOT: The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste is about a young woman during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Hirut is a maid to a nobleman and officer in Emperor Hailie Selassie’s army. His wife, Aster, is a cruel mistress and often suspects Hirut of sleeping with her husband. Hirut dreams of leaving the household and longs to fight as her father did when the Ethiopian army famously defeated the Italians in 1895 during the “scramble for Africa”. As Mussolini’s army closes in, Aster decides to train Hirut and other young women in combat. Initially they are not allowed to fight, but when Emperor Hailie Selassie flees the country, they need a Shadow King and his female guards to rally the troops.
RATING: I’m sorry but it’s my default rating of three and a half stars. Sadly I’ve had a run of books that I appreciate artistically and want to love, but they just haven’t done it for me. Taking inspiration from the Trojan War, some parts of this novel speak to me and I loved the epic view of combat. However, I didn’t feel much for any of the main characters and the lyrical writing often felt heavy with over-description. This is a good book with an interesting subject matter, beautiful writing style and important themes, but it dragged along and simply didn’t capture my heart.
GOOD BITS: Firstly, I loved the use of the Trojan War and this symbolism was present in many aspects. For example, Aster was like Clytemnestra – grieving for her dead child and a “woman who maneuvers like a man”, and the Italian Army thinks of themselves as the sons of Troy, although they are more like the Greek aggressors in this conflict. The author also has short interludes from the point of view of a Chorus in an Ancient Greek play, who comment on the action but cannot intervene. This theme spoke to my interests and was very emotive and powerful, adding a strong sense of atmosphere.
Secondly, there are several chapters from the point of view of a Jewish photographer in the Italian army. I found these very engaging as the Nazi/Fascist policy to expel the Jews intensifies and he starts to identify with the plight of the Ethiopian people. This character has the biggest arc in my opinion, which is why I got closer to him. He also had a lot of backstory, with his parents being central to the storyline, which allowed me to sympathise with him. Best of all, he was consistent – a soldier following orders, his actions were always authentic.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: The blurb ruined this book for me. On the back it mentions that Hirut is captured by the Italian forces and is a prisoner so I kept waiting for this event to happen. Unfortunately, this made the rest of the novel seem tedious as I just wanted to understand when the dual storylines (the Ethiopian and Italian camps) intersected with Hirut’s capture. I think the novel as a whole would’ve been more powerful if this crucial event happened in the middle of the book, but knowing it was coming made me impatient and frustrated.
Also, the writing style was too dense for my tastes. The descriptions felt laboured and I just wanted the author to get on with it and tell me the story. I would’ve preferred if the lyrical, descriptive style of writing was limited to the Chorus, whereas the protagonist could’ve been told through straight-forward language reflecting her societal status.
OVERALL: If you like historical fiction and African literature, you should definitely read this. It’s a very layered narrative and I’d be keen to discuss because my experience will not reflect how others receive this book. Despite having lots of the right elements, it didn’t come together for me and I probably wouldn’t read Maaza Mengiste’s other books due to my issues with the style.