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The Shadow King

by Maaza Mengiste

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5612836,928 (3.93)84
A beautifully written and utterly captivating novel about female strength and the power of belief, set during Mussolini's 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, The Shadow King casts a light on the women soldiers who were written out of history.

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“He raises his arm and brings it down and hurls his voice into the valley: Charge! He screams it though there is no way he can be heard. Charge! The war cries erupt, the ascari surge forward, the air thickens with dust and voice and horn, and soon the chaos no longer spins. It is his to control. It becomes exhilarating. And as the ascari dash across the field, he imagines the coming clash as colossal and symphonic, operatic and tragic.”

Sweeping historic fiction about the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 by Mussolini’s troops. It highlights the active role women played in the war, moving from support to full-fledged soldiers. It opens in 1974, as protagonist Hirut returns to Addis Ababa with a mysterious box. It then flashes back to tell her story. It is not just a story of war, though. It is also a story of family. It includes characters from both sides, portraying their personalities, backstories, and motivations.

This is an ambitious novel. The characters are deeply developed. There are many forms of “shadows,” such as photographs that evoke memories of those who died in the war, a body double for Emperor Haile Selassie (who fled to England), the victims that maintain their dignity in the face of horrific cruelty, and others who become a shadow of their former selves in a multitude of ways. It weaves in descriptions of photos, a Greek chorus, and Interludes.

“A group of Abyssinians are astride horses in brightly colored saddles at the top of the hill across the valley. They are galloping down at full speed, a burst of light and color: a dozen warriors with wild hair, their cries like a discordant Greek chorus. Far ahead of them, that improbable figure, his chest exposed to the soldati, leaping over stone and grass, incomprehensible. Beautiful, even.”

It starts slowly and builds up to the climactic battle. It feels fragmented at times, but overall, it is a lyrically written, powerful evocation of a piece of history. It inspired me to research more about the Italo-Ethiopian wars. As a caution, this book contains extreme war-related brutality, murder of civilians, and rape.

“Here is the truth he wants to ignore: that what is forged into memory tucks itself into bone and muscle. It will always be there and it will follow us to the grave.”
( )
  Castlelass | Oct 30, 2022 |
This book wasn't much like what I expected, and I'm trying to figure out how I feel about that. At least on my advanced reader's copy, the description focused on Hirut and her work to pass off the "shadow king" as the absent emperor, her work guarding him, and the contributions of women in war. All that's there, but the description gives these things much more prominence than they get in the text.

Yes, Hirut is probably the character who gets the most page space, but Ettore Navarra, a photographer with the invading Italian army whose Jewish ancestors are only now becoming relevant, gets a significant amount of page space as well. So do Kidane, Hirut's employer who becomes the leader of their branch of the Ethiopian resistance (and a complete !#$%$# to Hirut), and Carolo Fucelli, an absolutely horrendous Italian colonel with an odd mix of barbarity and civility. (He has Ettore photograph each prisoner before and while he has them thrown off a cliff, but when Hirut and Aster, Kidane's wife, are captured, Aster is raped once and then both women are kept alive in prison, repeatedly photographed half-naked, but physically unharmed. I think Mengiste wanted us to have mixed feelings about him for the protective and paternal feelings he has for Ettore, but that never got to me--the guy throws people off cliffs and photographs their deaths. No, it was the fact that Fucilli kept Hirut and Aster alive and unharmed that confused me.) Others who get some page time include emperor in exile Haile Selassie, who gets quite a few "Interludes"; Aster, Kidane's wife; Fifi, Fucelli's Ethiopian mistress; and a "Chorus" of Ethiopian women who try to reassure Hirut and Aster that they they have shared their domestic horrors, like wedding night rape, and who refer to the songs that they will someday sing about Hirut and Aster's roles in the war…though given that Mengiste starts the book with a foreword saying that she had no idea of her own great-grandmother’s participation, it’s hard to find these choruses that inspiring.

The structure of the book is interesting in its own right. While most chapters are given over to one character or another, as the book goes on (and especially in the battle scenes) the point of view will switch without warning from one paragraph to the next. This certainly speaks to the confusion of battle, but it feels more like a matter of convenience when it starts showing up in the quiet parts of the second half of the book. In addition to the emperor's "Interludes" and the occasional "Chorus", there are also several "Photo" vignettes describing in emotional as well as visual detail the photographs that Ettore takes of his surroundings, from innocent things like the camp cook and the Italian army on the move to horrors like Ethiopians on display before death, hanging from a tree, hurtling over a cliff. Photography and image-building are incredibly important to the story, so the descriptions aren't relegated only to these spaces, but the "Photo" sections do give space for the subjects to stand on their own, outside of the context of Fucelli's artistic interests and Ettore's (ugh) aesthetics. Ettore is one of those people who's "just following orders" but also enjoying his art even as he tries to hide behind his camera to wall himself off from what happens in front of it. (I did some searching and found out that the photo bits are inspired by Mengiste's collection of real photos from the war.)

Oh, and there are no quotation marks around dialogue, which I'm seeing so much in newer books that it's starting to feel more like a sign of, "Hey, I'm being literary here!" and less like a thought-about choice. That's kind of rude of me to bring up here, because if there's any book where a lack of quotation marks is appropriate, it's The Shadow King. I already mentioned that battle scenes get split into multiple points of view, but there are also a few places where I think the reader is meant to confront their assumptions about who, exactly, is speaking--enough to interest but not annoy me, despite my opening to this paragraph.

The writing itself was beautiful but, I must admit, it felt overwritten in just a few places in battles and landscapes, where I had to reread a paragraph or a page to parse through the imagery to get to the substance. But overall it was much more lovely than purple.

So I got a fantastic, thoughtful, beautifully structured and -written book that, had I known what to expect, I would have appreciated much more. But I went into this expecting a story "by" and about the women who challenged their supporting roles in the resistance in order to do the actual fighting. Instead, Hirut and Aster take part in only one battle, in which they are captured. They escape, but then there's a big jump to the end of the war when we're told that Aster had been leading the guerilla resistance with Hirut's help--but we see none of it.

I would have liked an author's note with some history. [HUGE caveat here--I'm reading an ARC, it's entirely possible one was added later.] I went to the Wikipedia page about the Second Italo-Ethiopian War looking for more information and felt a bit of dissonance. Some of the atrocities the Italian army perpetrated on the people of Ethiopia felt almost glanced over in the novel. Yes, we've got one Italian officer who's sadistic one-on-one, but the extent of the use of poison and mustard gas felt underplayed, there wasn't mention of the deliberate three-day massacre in Addis Ababa, and in real life there didn't seem to be as much of an organized resistance during the bulk of the occupation (skipped over the plot) as Mengiste suggests. Was the first big battle we read about the Christmas Offensive? Was there really a "shadow king"? Was there an individual officer who inspired Fucilli, or a place in Ethiopia that inspired his prison? Where can we learn more about the women like Mengiste's great-grandmother who fought in the war? There isn’t much to be found with a simple search so a little help would be nice.

Still, it's a rare book that makes me miss by subway stop, which I did in the last 40 pages of The Shadow King. ( )
  books-n-pickles | Oct 10, 2022 |
I was inspired to read more about this.
  sana8 | Sep 6, 2022 |
Interesting story, but the writing was overshadowed by the overwhelming descriptions of violence. ( )
  tangledthread | Jul 6, 2022 |
A beautifully written story of Ethiopia's fight against Mussolini's invasion. It is brutal and heartbreaking, but I don't think the truth of war can be told in any other way.

CONTENT WARNINGS rape, child rape, child abuse, domestic abuse, war violence ( )
  Zoes_Human | Apr 10, 2022 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Mengiste, Maazaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Miles, RobinNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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She does not want to remember but she is here and memory is gathering bones.
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A beautifully written and utterly captivating novel about female strength and the power of belief, set during Mussolini's 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, The Shadow King casts a light on the women soldiers who were written out of history.

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A gripping novel set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, The Shadow King takes us back to the first real conflict of World War II, casting light on the women soldiers who were left out of the historical record.

With the threat of Mussolini’s army looming, recently orphaned Hirut struggles to adapt to her new life as a maid in 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.
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