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Booker Longlist – The Shadow King – Maaza Mengiste


Book Ten – reviewed by panelists Tracy, BookWorm and Susie.

Maaza Mengiste  was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but moved to Kenya at the age of four.  She attended school in New York.  

Synopsis from Booker Prize website: Ethiopia. 1935. With the threat of Mussolini’s army looming, recently orphaned Hirut struggles to adapt to her new life as a maid. Her new employer, Kidane, an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army, rushes to mobilise his strongest men before the Italians invade.

Hirut and the other women long to do more than care for the wounded and bury the dead. When Emperor Haile Selassie goes into exile and Ethiopia quickly loses hope, it is Hirut who offers a plan to maintain morale. She helps disguise a gentle peasant as the emperor and soon becomes his guard, inspiring other women to take up arms. But how could she have predicted her own personal war, still to come, as a prisoner of one of Italy’s most vicious officers?

The Shadow King casts light on the women soldiers written out of African and European history. It is a captivating exploration of female power, and what it means to be a woman at war.

Tracy’s Thoughts: WOMAN POWER! I really liked this book- for the characters, their motivations, and that it’s based on fact.

Normally, a WWII era book is taken off my radar almost immediately- I’ve reached my saturation point, and feel that many of the newer books set in that time are just romanticizing what was a very low point in the history of the world.

This, however, was a story worth telling and reading. The author’s descriptions were well done, I found myself cheering for the characters, and she kept to the storyline. I love it when I learn new things, and this part of Ethiopia’s history is one that I was unfamiliar with- it inspired me to search for more information. I especially like how the women took charge of their own fates. This is an inspirational story for a time that needs it.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality: 4/5
Character development: 3.5/4
Plot development: 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 1.5/4
Total: 16/20

Book Worm’s Thoughts: Wow this book absolutely blew me away this is everything a Booker book should be. The language is beautiful, the narrative uses interesting techniques when switching perspectives and the characters are so vibrant and alive I really felt their struggles, their pain, their anger and the hatred.

The book deals with events during WWII and the Italian invasion of Ethiopia before picking this book up I had no idea this had even happened. It was fascinating to see the role women played in the conflict and this was made even more interesting as the story is based on the real-life stories from the authors family. Once again the only word is WOW.

This book does contain violence, torture, rape and abuse of power but I guess you would expect that given its setting. This is done is a non gratuitous way and is an essential part of the story. To understand the women and their anger you have to understand their history. It also serves to allow the reader to understand the “enemy” as well.

For me this is a shoe-in for the short list but it is not often the Booker judges agree with me. Looking at you “The Discomfort of Evening”

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality: 4/5
Character development: 4/4
Plot development: 4/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total: 18/20

Susie’s Thoughts: 

This was a dense read that appeared much longer than its already long 448 pages. It was almost bogged down by its own lyricism, with the reader needing to wade through the flowery prose to uncover the narrative. This was hard work. Was it worth it? I’m unsure. It definitely could have used some heavy editing. I did learn a lot about the Italian attempt at occupying Ethiopia. There were times where I was dazzled by the writing, but there were also times where I was bored witless. Overall an uneven read.

Writing quality: 3/5
Originality: 3/5
Character development: 2.5/4
Plot development: 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Total: 12.5/20


  1. Apeirogon 18
  2. How Much of These Hills is Gold 16.1
  3. The Shadow King15.5
  4. Shuggie Bain 15.3
  5. Real Life 13.9
  6. This Mournable Body 12.3
  7. Burnt Sugar11.8
  8. Such a Fun Age 11.1
  9. Redhead at the Side of the Road 11
  10. The New Wilderness 10.4


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