Maaza Mengiste salutes the soldiers written out of history in her captivating exploration of female power, and what it means to be a woman at war.

Ethiopia. 1935. With the threat of an Italian invasion looming, the commanders of Emperor Haile Selassie’s army rush to mobilise their strongest men. Hirut and the other women long to do more than care for the wounded and bury the dead. When Haile Selassie goes into exile, Hirut devises a plan to maintain morale. She disguises a peasant as the emperor and becomes his guard, inspiring other women to take up arms.

The 2020 Booker Prize
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Maaza Mengiste

Maaza Mengiste

About the Author

Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She is the author of The Shadow King and Beneath the Lion’s Gaze.
More about Maaza Mengiste

Maaza Mengiste on The Shadow King

‘It feels surreal to see my name on this list with others whom I admire so much. Some of these writers have taught me how to re-imagine the possibilities in my own work. I am inspired and humbled by the astonishing range and depth of every book listed, and to know that The Shadow King is amongst them is an honour that I still cannot quite believe has happened. In the years that I spent writing and revising The Shadow King, I was afraid I would never finish. To see it now on the longlist is a dream I didn’t dare to have. To say I am happy is an understatement.’

Read the full interview here.

It was all the things I didn’t know, about something I thought I understood, that sent me to my desk and kept me there, writing

What the judges said

The Shadow King is a meticulously researched and lyrical novel, a beautifully constructed historical fiction of women in war. We were drawn into the story of Hirut, the lead character who has, until now, never been heard. It is a brave, noble, gripping book that would not have been written at any other point in history.’

What the critics said

Richard Crepeau, New York Journal of Books

‘Within these pages, there are passages that approach the sublime. There is pain, anguish, horror, and sadness, alongside passages of subtle human feelings conveyed without words. These can be devastating, enlightening, and, at times, exhilarating.’

Laura Seay, Washington Post

‘A must-read… The Shadow King is a masterpiece… Brilliant… [Mengiste] is simply an outstanding writer, with an uncanny ability with words, metaphor, history and truth… I simply cannot recommend this remarkable book highly enough to anyone who looks for the best writing to tell compelling stories.’

Michael Schaub, NPR

‘The star of the novel, however, is Mengiste’s gorgeous writing, which makes The Shadow King nearly impossible to put down. Mengiste has a real gift for language; her writing is powerful but never florid, gripping the reader and refusing to let go. And this, combined with her excellent sense of pacing, makes the book one of the most beautiful novels of the year. It’s a brave, stunning call for the world to remember all who we’ve lost to senseless violence: “She can hear the dead growing louder: We must be heard. We must be remembered. We must be known. We will not rest until we have been mourned.”’

Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal

‘… a work of reclamation in a number of ways. For one thing, the story, which dramatizes the invasion and the tenacious Ethiopian resistance, shines a light on a conflict that has often been forgotten behind the battles of the world war that followed it. Ms. Mengiste furthermore centers on the Ethiopian women who played a vital but almost completely unrecognized role in the insurgency. But most important, The Shadow King is not a story about helpless victims of colonial conquest. Against the odds, it is written in a key of pride and exaltation, and its characters have the outsize form of national heroes… Ms. Mengiste ambitiously stretches her canvas to include colliding perspectives… The battle scenes – the best passages in this busy, stirring novel also have a strongly visual, even cinematic, flair.’

Francesca Capossela, Los Angeles Review of Books

‘In addition to memorializing the centrality of women in war…The Shadow King goes a step further and masterfully illustrates how being a woman in this world is itself so often a kind of warfare … Mengiste’s narration is fluid, moving between characters, as well as forward and backward in time… Mengiste’s use of a shifting point of view is generous: no character is too irrelevant – or too immoral – to become momentarily central, to be given a voice… Mengiste’s narrative defies the moralistic view that could so easily be applied to this conflict. Instead, she emphasizes the similarities between characters’ experiences, and the constancy of suffering … For Mengiste’s characters, escape is made possible by light and by shadow. Sunlight vividly fills almost every scene… Mengiste uses this polarity of light and shade not as a clichéd moral about good and evil, but rather as an acknowledgment that every human body is a site of war, of internal conflict, of a division between disparate selves that cannot unify.’

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

Nina Sosanya reads Maaza Mengiste's The Shadow King


Actor Nina Sosanya performs a reading from 2020 Booker Prize-shortlisted author Maaza Mengiste’s book, The Shadow King.

This was originally streamed during The Booker Prize 2020 winner ceremony.

The Shadow King