Today, it’s another review of a book on this year’s Booker Prize long-list and it’s The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste.

The shortlist of the Booker Prize is fast approaching – the 15th September! And I have three more books to read on the long-list and more reviews to share! But first, it’s The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste. What is it about? Here is the synopsis:

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 is a gorgeously crafted and unputdownable exploration of female power, and what it means to be a woman at war.

I don’t read that much historical fiction, it needs to hook me straight away if I’m going to fall in love with the book and that is why I was a bit hesitant when starting The Shadow King as it wouldn’t be a book I would read but the story intrigued me so I thought I would give it a go. This is a story that needs to be told with a new perspective, a new history to be shared in fiction, characters that we won’t normally see/read. And that is something that I admire about this book but for me, it was a book I struggled with.

The writing of the book is quite heavy and can be a bit overwhelming – I almost DNF’d it as I just couldn’t get through with it, never mind reading 400 pages of it. But I found that the best way to read this book was by reading huge chunks of it in one go as the chapters aren’t that long and it worked – I read it and finished it. I just think she could have been a bit more creative in the way she told the story as there are some exciting elements in the novel that really brings a breath of fresh air to historical fiction.

She does this by a number of things, especially the structure of the novel. For me, the strongest part was the use of the chorus – something I really love in books and I felt that she could have taken this much further and made it a bigger part of the novel in telling the story. But then there were sections that were told in one perspective to the next and for me, it felt like too many books trying to be one book, if that makes sense.

I loved the new perspective she told in this story, especially from the point of view of the women, notably our main character, Hirut, who I wanted more from as I just felt she wasn’t that well developed as a character and I was desperate to have more from her. Seeing as it was a book talking about what it means to be a woman at war, it was mostly told by the male’s perspective and again, I wanted more from the perspective of the women in the novel.

I think this book will be a perfect read for some people but it wasn’t for me. There were glimmers of hope in some gorgeous, descriptive prose, I loved the new perspective, the use of the chorus, but it just felt a bit tangled up for me. I can appreciate it’s place on the Booker long-list but I don’t think it will be on the shortlist.

Have you read The Shadow King? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

Thank you,



  1. Great review! I felt much the same about this one. I think there’s a lot to appreciate about it (especially the characterization and history) but somehow it just wasn’t quite as effective for me in execution as I’d hoped.


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