BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste [in Booklist]

Maaza Mengiste’s indelible first novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gate (2010), put Ethiopian historical fiction on countless best-of, must-read, and award lists. Her monumental new novel draws inspiration from her great-grandmother, who as the eldest and in Mulan-style answered Emperor Haile Selassie’s demand for first sons to fight against Fascist Italy despite her father’s objections, insisting that her brothers were too young. In her author’s note, Mengiste explains that her brave predecessor “represents one of the many gaps in European and African history,“ namely, ”Ethiopian women who fought alongside men.“

In 1974 in the novel, just before Selassie is dethroned, Hirut arrives in Addis Ababa bearing a box filled with “the many dead that insist on resurrection.” Almost four decades earlier, in 1935, Hirut was an orphaned servant who followed her master, Kidane, and his wife, Aster, into battle against Mussolini’s invading troops. The women are initially relegated to being caretakers but prove themselves to be fierce as warriors. Hirut eventually plays servant to the titular Shadow King, a stand-in for the secluded emperor, who remains safe in England while his country bleeds.

Mengiste’s extraordinary characters – shrewd Kidane, militant Aster, the enigmatic cook, narcissistic Italian commander Fucelli, conflicted photographer Ettore, elusive prostitute Fifi, even haunted Selassie – epitomize the impossibly intricate ties between humanity and monstrosity, and the unthinkable, immeasurable cost of survival.

Review: “Fiction,” Booklist, August 1, 2019

Readers: Adult

Published: 2019



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