In 2017, we ran a feature on why the Ethiopian writer Maaza Mengiste, who debuted with the acclaimed Beneath the Lion’s Gaze (2010), threw away the first draft of her second novel. That novel, The Shadow King, is now forthcoming from Norton on 24 September 2019. The 448 page book, which has earned an enthusiastic reception from Kirkus Reviews, is set during the second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-7), when Italy invaded Ethiopia in retaliation for its monumental loss at the Battle of Adwa during the first War (1895-6). The conflict was the first leading up to World War II (1939-45). In exploring the Ethiopian society of the time, Mengiste focuses on the women whose version of events have since been deprioritized in historical records.
Here is a description of the novel:
With the threat of Mussolini’s army looming, recently orphaned Hirut struggles to adapt to her new life as a maid for Kidane and his wife Aster’s household. Kidane, an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army, rushes to mobilize his strongest men before the Italians invade. His initial kindness to Hirut shifts into a flinty cruelty when she resists his advances, and Hirut finds herself tumbling into a new world of thefts and violations, of betrayals and overwhelming rage. Meanwhile, Mussolini’s technologically advanced army prepares for an easy victory. Hundreds of thousands of Italians―Jewish photographer Ettore among them―march on Ethiopia seeking adventure.
As the war begins in earnest, Hirut, Aster, 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 against the Italians. But how could she have predicted her own personal war as a prisoner of one of Italy’s most vicious officers, who will force her to pose before Ettore’s camera?
What follows is a gorgeously crafted and unputdownable exploration of female power, with Hirut as the fierce, original, and brilliant voice at its heart. In incandescent, lyrical prose, Maaza Mengiste breathes life into complicated characters on both sides of the battle line, shaping a heartrending, indelible exploration of what it means to be a woman at war.
The Shadow King has drawn praise from Salman Rushdie, Aminatta Forna, Marlon James, Laila Lalami, and Andrew Sean Greer.
A brilliant novel, lyrically lifting history towards myth. It’s also compulsively readable. I devoured it in two days.
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.
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.
The Shadow King is a novel about war and history, both epic in scope and intimate in detail…Maaza Mengiste has a gift for rendering everyone in this story, resister and invader alike, with great nuance and complexity, leaving us with no room for easy judgment. A wonderful book.
One of the most affecting accounts of the terror of war I have ever read, all the more so for the being cloaked in the language of beauty, such that the words and their meaning burn through the senses. 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.
Born in Addis Ababa, Maaza Mengiste’s debut novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze was named one of The Guardian’s Ten Best Contemporary African Books. She has written for The New Yorker, Granta, and The New York Times, among other publications. A Fulbright Scholar, she is a professor in the MFA in Creative Writing & Literary Translation program at Queens College, New York City.
Pre-order The Shadow King on Amazon.