The Shadow King

Norton. Sept. 2019. 448p. ISBN 9780393083569. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393651096. F
Mussolini’s Italy invaded Ethiopia in the 1930s during the buildup to World War II after a late 19th-century invasion resulted in Italy’s humiliating defeat. Much of the Ethiopian population rose in arms to fight this second invasion; Emperor Haile Selassie decreed that women were to accompany the fighting men, originally as helpmeets, but the women evolved into a fighting force. Mengiste’s fictionalized history follows a young orphan woman, Hirut, a servant of Ethiopian fighter Kidane and his warrior wife, Aster. Hirut becomes a skilled soldier and is the brains behind a clever ruse that rallies the Ethiopian troops. When she is briefly captured, a tenuous alliance forms between her and an Italian soldier, Navarra, a regimental photographer under orders to document his sadistic Italian commander’s atrocities. Navarra, who is Jewish, grows increasingly horrified by his own complicity with the fascists.
VERDICT Mengiste’s (Beneath the Lion’s Gaze) tale of Ethiopian women warriors is fascinating and tension-filled. Her prose style is to show rather than tell, with short, cinematic chapters dense with imagery and sensory detail. Descriptions of the fog of battle are exquisite and horrific, all the more remarkable for being told from a woman’s point of view. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 3/4/19.]
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