THE SHADOW KING – Maaza Mengiste

But tell me who you are, she says.  Tell me slowly and repeat it three times, and I will make sure you are known. I will make a remembrance worthy of this fall. Say your name to me now. Say your name as you are photographed. Say it as you leap into the air and learn to fly. Do not let them forget who they have killed.”


The Shadow King (2019) by Maaza Mengiste deserves every bit of praise that has been bestowed upon it.   This lyrical work of historical fiction is bold and beautiful, fierce and fantastic, weighty and wonderful.  The second Italian invasion of Ethiopia is not a conflict that’s made my history books, and if it has, it was little more than a footnote.  As such, I want to give the briefest of history lesson.

Ethiopia was one of the few independent countries in a heavily European-controlled Africa, and Italy wanted to claim it for Italy and Italian landowners.  Following a failed attempt in the 1890s, Mussolini spearheaded the second invasion on October 3, 1935.  The children during the first attempt became the warriors in the second, following in their parents’ footsteps in fighting for their home.  Despite their best efforts, the Ethiopian army suffered blow after blow.  Emperor Haile Selassie fled the country and abandoned his people, going into exile.  Mussolini proclaimed Italy’s king emperor of Ethiopia.  Italy’s tentative control lasted until 1941.  Despite the Italian occupation, Ethiopia is largely considered to be one of two African countries that were never colonized.

That little taste of history provides just a hint of the setting for this remarkable novel that showcases the role of women during the conflict.

Hirut, a young servant, is at the heart of this novel. Following the deaths of her beloved parents, she is “taken in” by Kidane and his wife, Aster.  Her mother had served Kidane’s father, and she was violated repeatedly by him. While not stated with any certainty, it is hinted that Hirut is possibly Kidane’s half-sister.  Like her mother before her, Hirut is expected to serve the family.  Her only memento from her father is an old rifle, a Wujigra, and a single bullet. The Italians aren’t the only monsters who inflict pain upon her, and she grows hard and hellbent on vengeance – a warrior who understands the Italians aren’t the only enemy.

Aster is beautiful but broken.  After being forced into a marriage she tried so desperately to escape and losing her infant son, she has gone quite mad. She is filled with a rage that she redirects as jealousy toward Hirut.  When the Italians invade, she finds a new way to channel her rage and find herself.  She becomes the face of a movement.

The unnamed cook is a part of the land, and her knowledge of how to use plants to heal and kill, to make life and to expel it, are her weapons. The maternal role she played for not only Aster and Hirut, but Fifi and so many other unnamed women, men and children showcased is indicative of yet another way women found to fight the Italians as well as the enemy within.

Fifi is a woman of many names.  A true chameleon, she is a whore and a spy, a lover and a fighter.  Like women have done for centuries in conflicts all across the world, she feigns illiteracy and ignorance while taking top dollar from the Italian officers.  All the while, she’s taking note of telegrams and maps, orders and plans, and passing the information to Kidane’s army.

The women feed the men, heal the sick, and weld their weapons with certainty.  They stand tall, as their mothers did before them, and fight for their home.  They are the mothers and daughters, the sisters and wives, of a country that refused to submit.  The ground is soaked with their blood just as frequently as it is their tears.  History would have you forget them, would have you focus on the men who led charges, who became shadow kings for a coward emperor, who roared in battle.  While the novel gives a lot of insight into Ettore, the Jewish Italian soldier who photographed the war and the prisoners as commanded, and the Colonello Fucelli, who is Kidane’s perfect foil, it always comes back to the women, the true shadow kings of war.

Read this novel.

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