The 2020 Booker Prize had a very interesting and diverse short list – among them, The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste. I was very interested in this book not only because of the intriguing story, but also because I wanted to find out more about Africa’s history.

The Shadow King in a nutshell

The Shadow King is a historical fiction story that follows Hirut, an orphan young maid at the house of Kidane – one of the most important officers in the Ethiopian army. As Mussolini’s invasion forces enter the country, at the very start of WWII, Hirut and Aster (Kidane’s wife) gather the local women and lead them on the battle field.

The main focus of the book is on the overlooked contribution of women soldiers in this conflict – the women who did not only care for the wounded, but also fought alongside men. However, the story is not only about women – we also find out about the Italian army and their obsession of talking photos as record of their success, the exile of the Ethiopian king, and the strategic tricks used by the Ethiopian army.

Overall impression

I enjoyed so much reading The Shadow King! It is a rich story, beautifully written, that tackles the well-known topic of war from a completely different perspective! “The story of war has always been a masculine story, but this was not true for Ethiopia and it has never been that way in any form of struggle” said Maaza Mengiste in the Author’s Note at the end of the book.

The first quarter of the book was a bit more difficult to follow for 3 reasons:

  • the narration is a bit unusual, with a strong lyrical flavour
  • I did not have the necessary historical and cultural background (a tiny example: Haile Sellassie, the name of the Ethiopian emperor, sounded much more like a feminine name to me)
  • there are words in Italian and Amharic (language spoken in Ethiopia) sprinkled throughout the story

But once I got accustomed to the whole constellation I followed very passionately what happened on the battle field!

However, keep in mine – this is still a book about war, about the war field and everything that happens there. At times it reminded me of the war parts from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (my review), and also a bit of The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (my review).

Narration as a song

I mentioned earlier that the narration style has a strong lyrical component. So when I found out that Maaza Mengiste “thought of the book as a song” (Africa in Words, 2020), it all made sense! It is indeed as a series of interwoven voices, as points of view shift along the story. The whole narration dynamic is very fluid, sometimes boundaries are unclear … and that’s the beauty of it!

Another song-related aspect of the book is that there is also a Chorus narrator. According to Mengiste, the chorus is a reference to the Ethiopian Azmari – a traditional singer-songwriter who uses a lute and travels from place to place, singing history (Africa in Words, 2020).

Photographic records of the war

Maaza Mengiste inspired her characters from photographs taken during the Italo-Ethiopian war. These photos are now available in an online archive – Project 3541 – and also on the Instagram account @theshadowkingnovel.

Photos from the Italo-Ethiopian war (from

Throughout the story an important character is Ettore Navarro, the photographer in charge of documenting the success and horrors of the Italian invasion. This aspect of the book reminded me of the only photographer from Romania’s 1918 Union – Samoila Marza. The hired photographer did not come to the event, so Marza’s photos are the only visual records of the historic moment. It seems that he bought his camera using the money received by his parents for a pair of oxen.


A very intriguing and immersive story, The Shadow King will bring fear, goose bumps, pity and sadness, but also excitement and awe. This book surely joins my “must recommend to everyone” book list, as it is a masterpiece from so many perspectives!

Have you read any of the two books written by Maaza Mengiste – Beneath the Lion’s Gaze and The Shadow King?

‘Till next time … happy reading!


4 thoughts on “The untold stories of Ethiopian women at war: The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (book review)

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