'The Shadow King' tells the story of the female soldiers written out of African history

Maaza Mengiste returns with a second novel about another 20th-century event that ravaged her native land

2010, Maaza Mengiste, Ethiopian writer, portrait, Roma, Italy, 2010. (Photo by Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images)
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Maaza Mengiste's debut novel, Beneath the Lion's Gaze (2010), told the story of the early years of the 1974 Ethiopian revolution. After a 10-year hiatus, Mengiste has returned with a second work about another 20th-century event that ravaged her native land, namely, the war against Mussolini's fascist forces. In that first book, she charted the uprising through the eyes of an extended family. Now, in The Shadow King, she chronicles the conflict by way of the female soldiers who took up arms and fought in it.

The novel begins not with the heat of battle, but the threat of invasion. It is 1935 and tension is brewing throughout Ethiopia. However, Hirut, a young maid, wrestles with troubles of her own closer to home. Recently orphaned, she has joined the household of Kidane and his wife, Aster. There, Hirut shares a cramped, squalid room with the cook, and weathers the blows and endures the mood swings of her volatile mistress.

Aster is jealous of her husband’s affection for Hirut and grieving the loss of her dead child. When her necklace disappears, she blames Hirut and unleashes her anger. But when Hirut’s prized possession – a rifle bequeathed to her by her late father who used it in the First Italo-Ethiopian War – is confiscated by Kidane for imminent combat, she retaliates with an act of defiance.

'The Shadow King' by Maaza Mengiste, author of 'Beneath the Lion's Gaze'

Both Hirut and Aster yearn to direct their vengeance against the real enemy – the Italian colonisers. "We women won't sit by while they march into homes," Aster tells the cook. Kidane expressly forbids it, but when he disappears to mobilise troops, Aster dons a cape, mounts a horse and rides off with Hirut in tow to rally together women who are prepared to fight for their country.

Battle commences and Hirut reclaims her rifle and makes her first kill. During one particularly messy fray, she is besieged by misgivings: "what do girls like her know about resistance, what do girls like her know but how to live and obey and keep quiet until it is time to die?" She manages to overcome her doubts and soldiers on. But then, she and Aster are captured and imprisoned by the sadistic Colonel Carlo Fucelli – "son of Italy, conqueror of Benghazi". Is victory still possible or are they now fighting a losing battle?

Here and elsewhere, Mengiste presents captivating scenes of courageous women refusing to be cowed or beaten. Hirut and Aster suffer separately at the hands of Kidane, but each comes back stronger. Besides fighting valiantly, Hirut boosts morale among her disillusioned people by disguising Minim, a simple peasant, as the titular "Shadow King", and then taking on the role of his personal guard. The formidable, indomitable Aster delivers rousing calls to arms: "These aren't the days to pretend you're only a wife or a sister or a mother," she proclaims. "We're more than this."

By day, Kidane tasks the 50 women in his army with carrying supplies and attending to the wounded. By night, Aster teaches them how to mix gunpowder and make bullets, or trains with them in the hills until they are battle-ready – or "until Hirut finds that her fear has lost its edge".

They have every right to be afraid. Mengiste conveys the might of the Italians who overcome Ethiopian armies and civilians with their tanks, sophisticated weaponry and mustard gas. "It was not war," observes one Italian soldier. "This was a slaughter." Their atrocities are graphically rendered, but at the same time, the author ensures that her prose is imbued with lyrical beauty. Rather than look away, we surrender to her rhythms and become captivated by her imagery.

Mengiste explains that her great-grandmother defied convention and enlisted to fight against the Italian invaders

The novel flits between the Ethiopian side and the Italian, but Mengiste also weaves in various other strands. A series of "interludes" track Emperor Haile ­Selassie, first at home agonising over the assault on his country ("The humiliation is a thick-boned, heavy-fleshed intruder") and then in exile in Bath paralysed by reports of massacres in Addis Ababa. There is also commentary from a Greek-type chorus and potted histories of peripheral characters.

All of this adds smatterings of colour, but little else. Far more absorbing are the descriptions of photographs taken by one Jewish-Italian soldato, Ettore. The snapshots culminate with his grisly "Album of the Dead", a ­catalogue of casualties of war. Ettore's own fate appears bleak when he hears reports of rising anti-semitism back in Venice.

But the novel is at its most dynamic when the focus is on the resistance efforts of Ethiopia's female warriors. In her author's note, Mengiste explains that her great-grandmother defied convention and enlisted to fight against the Italian invaders. She represents "one of the many gaps in European and African history". The Shadow King is a brilliant artistic achievement, but also a worthy attempt to help plug that gap.