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Book Review: The Shadow King

Warrior Spirits and Marginalized History

In 1935, Mussolini invaded Ethiopia. The Italian army, with its modern weaponry, perpetrated all manner of war crimes, including the use of mustard gas and the whole-scale massacring of civilians. Ethiopian forces, not well supplied or armed, fought with spears and antiquated weaponry.


Using this war as the backdrop, Maaza Mengiste explores gender roles, identity, and the fluid nature of memory in her novel, The Shadow King.


Hirut, an orphaned servant, serves Kidane and his wife, Aster. As the leader of a band of Ethiopian soldiers, Kidane is hampered by outdated weapons and no modern methods of communication; in order to deliver messages, he must employ runners from camp to camp.


Aster wishes to fight alongside her husband, but he insists that women’s roles are to tend the sick and to bury the dead. Donning a uniform, Aster sweep through the villages, stirring the hearts of women to join her. Hirut is pulled along by her own desire for independence and identity, not only from the invaders but from the oppressions of servitude.


Mengiste asks: “... what do girls like her know about rebellion, what do girls like her know about resistance, what do girls like her know but how to die?” By reaching deep into metaphor, the author explores questions of identity. Who are we? Nothing but shadows until we can claim our voices.


The story is not compelled by plot so much as it is by experience. Using language that is poetic and often analytic, the author weaves us through the fluidity of the present moment as it connects with the past and future. At times, the storyline jumps, if only for a short paragraph, reaching forty years into the future, showing us where the characters’ lives will lead before deftly returning us to the current moment. In essence, individual episodes are never isolated but rather are informed by the past and become harbingers of what is to come. We are composed of a compendium of moments, much more intertwined than we typically admit.


Mengiste employs various devices to convey the story, including “interludes” which tell the story of Haile Selassie in exile, and “choruses,” in which voices from the past sing of the trials of the present:


“Sing, daughters, of one woman and one thousand, of those multitudes who rushed like wind to free a country from poisonous beasts. Sing, children, of those who came before you, of those who laid the path on which you tread toward warmer suns. Sing, men, of valiant Aster and furious Hirut and their blinding light across a shadowed land.
Sing of those who are no more,
Sing of the giants still amongst you,
Sing of those yet to be born.
Sing.”

Throughout the novel are various contrasts: between person and shadow, between memories and photographs, between homeland and exile, even between emperors and doppelgangers. These contrasts raise questions about how history is preserved. What is often emphasized in history books is the courage of Ethiopian men in fighting the technologically superior Italians. Yet, Mengiste points out, there are other crucial stories as well. There is the oppression which Jewish-Italian soldiers faced at the hands of their own government. There is the exile of Emperor Haile Selassie, who felt helpless to interfere for his country’s good.


And, most important, at the heart of the novel are Hirut and Aster, powerful forces which rally the male soldiers to drive back the Italians. Enduring the crucible of war, these women learn how to unleash the warrior-spirit that is their heritage, too. Through them, Mengiste honors the real women who fought in the war, who otherwise would be erased from history.


When I picked up the book, I knew nothing about the second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-37). What I came away with was a better understanding of events, but more importantly, a deep empathy for the legacy of warrior-spirits whose voices must be heard.



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