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Maaza Mengiste. Photo source: unknown.

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.

Image by For Coloured Girls from Inst4gram.

The Shadow King has drawn praise from Salman Rushdie, Aminatta Forna, Marlon James, Laila Lalami, and Andrew Sean Greer.

Pre-order The Shadow King on Amazon.

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About Otosirieze Obi-Young

View all posts by Otosirieze Obi-Young
Otosirieze Obi-Young is a writer, journalist, & Deputy Editor of Brittle Paper. The recipient of the inaugural The Future Awards Prize for Literature in 2019, he is a judge for The Gerald Kraak Prize and was a judge for The Morland Writing Scholarship in 2019. He is Nonfiction Editor at 14, Nigeria’s first queer art collective, which has published volumes including We Are Flowers (2017) and The Inward Gaze (2018). He is Curator at The Art Naija Series, a sequence of e-anthologies of writing and visual art focusing on different aspects of Nigerianness, including Enter Naija: The Book of Places (2016), which explores cities, and Work Naija: The Book of Vocations (2017), which explores professions. His work in queer equality advocacy in literature has been profiled in Literary Hub. His fiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review and Transition. He has completed a collection of short stories, You Sing of a Longing, is working on a novel, and is represented by David Godwin Associates literary agency. He has an M.A. in African Studies and a combined honours B.A. in History & International Studies/English & Literary Studies, both from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He taught English in a private Nigerian university. Find him at otosirieze.com, where he accepts writing and editing offers, or on Instagram or Twitter: @otosirieze. When bored, he Googles Rihanna.

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