BOOK REVIEW: Shedding light on unsung heroines of Adowa battle

Friday December 18 2020
The Shadow King.

The cover of ‘The Shadow King’ by Maaza Mengiste. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI


A new novel by the Ethiopian author Maaza Mengiste titled The Shadow King captures the valuable contribution of the gallant heroines who were part of national army that defeated the invading colonial Italian army in Ethiopia 85 years ago.

The Shadow King sheds light on the Ethiopian 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.

The "commander" is a young woman called Hirut and one of her only treasured worldly possessions is a rifle she inherited from her father. Now, orphaned and working as a servant as Ethiopia prepares for an invasion from Italy, Hirut keeps her weapon closer and recalls how her father taught her to aim and shoot.

An emblem of comfort, power, and independence, Hirut’s rifle is a symbol of her future as an extraordinary soldier. As the battle between Italy and Ethiopia intensifies, Hirut demonstrates integrity, resilience, and determination in the face of brutal treatment and imprisonment, ascending to her destiny as a strong and graceful warrior in the powerful novel.

After losing her parents, Hirut has come to live with the beautiful, formidable Aster and her husband Dejazmach Kidane, a former friend of her mother. Hirut’s relations with her new guardians are complex, but she draws continually on the memory of her parents’ courage to remind herself of her own strength.

Each finely drawn, emotionally complex character in The Shadow King must navigate the conflicts and blurred lines between political duty and personal responsibility. Colonel Carlo Fucelli, head of the Italian army, leads his soldiers with paternalism and bravado but cannot bring himself to admit how much he depends on the care and tenderness of Fifi, the Ethiopian whore whom he loves.


Throughout the epic, elegiac The Shadow King, interwoven with Hirut’s journey are the moving stories, fraught memories, and hard-won battles of other soldiers, both Ethiopian and Italian.

The Shadow King’s gripping, exhilarating depiction of female warriors demonstrating courage and ability during wartime is true to life. As she grew up, author Maaza Mengiste heard stories about the Second Italo-Ethiopian War and imagined heroic battles fought by brave men. But the reality of those stories was even more moving and extraordinary than what she had first envisioned. After researching the war on a Fulbright fellowship in Italy, Mengiste learned that her own great-grandmother had fought in that battle.

Like Hirut, Mengiste’s great-grandmother was at first denied her rightful access to a gun and forbidden from fighting. But after successfully suing for access to her father’s gun, Mengiste’s great-grandmother enlisted in the army and proudly demonstrated her patriotism in war.  In The Shadow King, nothing true can remain hidden. No matter how intently characters try to suppress them, memories and past deeds fight for life. The dead and unheeded frequently find ways to “insist on resurrection.” Reality may be papered over by stories and constructed memories, but the truth resurfaces at unexpected moments and in tenacious ways. Photographs and letters emerge from the past, demanding reinterpretation. Messages arrive from old acquaintances unheard of for forty years.

“She can hear the dead growing louder,” Mengiste writes. They say: “We must be heard. We must be remembered. We must be known.”

An epic, elegiac novel about the majesty and influence of women warriors during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, The Shadow King lifts to the forefront the unassailable power of women’s courage and prowess in conflicts throughout history.