Maaza Mengiste’s second novel, The Shadow King, recounts a tumultuous war in Ethiopian history that took the country by surprise, pit locals against one another, and left them scarred for decades to come. Narrating the story is an invisible, omniscient chorus of women, inspired by Mengiste’s own great-grandmother. They alternate between singing, mourning, and rallying the troops into action, never allowing the reader a moment of silence. The result is a visceral story of violence, loyalty and forgiveness.

It’s no surprise that war stories are dominated by men. It’s not unexpected, either, that the women are left behind to continue their legacies. In The Shadow King, too, soldiers and singers appear to be divided by gender. But Mengiste inverts this paradigm in the early pages, and sustains it over the next four hundred. She hinges the entire book on a young slave girl named Hirut, who is neither young nor a slave by the end. And it is through her transformation – jagged, brutal, and ultimately, awesome – that the reader witnesses a country’s worth of change.

A millennial story needs superheroes

First, the facts: in 1935, Italy went to war against Ethiopia in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, having been defeated forty years earlier. Emperor Haile Selassie commandeered his troops to respond, then left for Geneva in 1936 to plead his country’s case at the League of Nations. Receiving no help from them, he and his wife continued on to England where they lived, and waited, in exile. Ethiopia was bereft of its leaders and his orders, and fought back as best as they could. The war raged until 1941, when Italy fell in World War II.

But if Homer’s Iliad or Verdi’s Aida are the standards to go by, facts are a minor component of any epic. A story needs narrators, legends and heroes; a millennial rendition requires superheroes. And Mengiste knows this. Setting most of her novel in 1935, she acknowledges that “[h]istorical events and timelines have been altered or compressed for the purposes of the narrative,” and creates one that is hypnotic and resounding. It stays close to the main characters’ perspectives, but regularly expands into a chorus – that in turn sings, proclaims, mourns, cheers, and warns. A collective of women, this chorus is all-seeing and all-knowing, unlike the women on the ground who must stumble and suffer through each day of violence. The combination is unnerving.

But Mengiste manipulates it to create heroes (even the Marvel kind) out of her women characters. More than that: history. While The Shadow King traces an invasion and a war, the book is actually a choreography of the women’s footprints on the battlefield, a symphony of their chants and cries. Mengiste has assembled a very specific cast of women and men to direct: Emperor Selassie and his daughter’s ghost; Ethiopian soldier Kidane and his relentless wife Aster; Italian commander Fucelli and his sly, native mistress Ferres; war photographer Ettore and the accidental keeper of his secrets, our heroine, Hirut.

Each woman starts off as a shadow of a man, but here Mengiste is clever. While shadows connote something ephemeral and hidden, hers have the ability to amplify those they follow. They decide when to enlarge and when to shrink; like a memory, they never disappear; like a raincloud, they are permanently foreboding. And as the story progresses it becomes less clear who is the character and who is the shadow.

Most literally, after Selassie disappears from his country in the middle of war, a ploy is devised to recreate him using a lookalike. A soft-spoken village boy is dressed up in uniform and trained to gaze, gesture, and ride a horse like a king. He is paraded through the deserts to boost the troops, leaving them ecstatic. As the real king sits exiled and impotent, his shadow strengthens in his new identity: “…the Shadow King and his female guard step forward onto that highest crest and gaze below. The army looks up and grows silent, awed by the presence of Emperor Haile Selassie, thrown into speechlessness by the sight of the guard who steps forward, resplendent in her uniform”

Never too far behind

Perhaps readers can guess that the hero here is not the Selassie imitation, but his resplendent guard. In fact, she begins in the book a pathetic, orphaned slave girl named Hirut, who used to sleep with her father’s rifle tucked into her mattress so that she could “pretend it [was] her mother’s arm”. She is despised by her mistress Aster, and regularly raped by her master Kidane.

All this she endures until one evening when she hears Emperor Haile Selassie’s wife, Empress Menen, address the nation on the radio, a device that she imagines as “a row of men’s voices waiting inside the box for the knob to open the door and let them through”. This time, however, it is the Empress’ voice being let out, and she is making a statement condemning war.

The men, Kidane included, ignore it, and prepare for battle; Mengiste is deft with the jargon and historical details. But Aster is moved, as is Hirut – and these are two women at war with one another. It is an early clue that The Shadow King is not a typical, male, soldier’s story. How can it be, when the first armed character the reader meets is a girl whose only inheritance from her parents is a gun?

Two hundred and thirty pages later, Hirut has become the “new image of Mother Ethiopia, the one who represents all the women who have survived the war to raise their guns and fight or rush onto the battle field to carry the wounded”. Mengiste is able to transform a doubly-humiliated girl into this epic symbol because, Hirut, for the first time, finds purpose, and identity, and responsibility, in fighting. Not surprisingly, so do all the other women in the book.

Mengiste is subtle with this last point: not all the women go charging into battle, but they are never too far behind the men, in one way or another. Following Emperor Selassie’s orders to prepare for war is the Empress’ radio announcement, for example. And following Kidane’s orders to attack are Aster’s desires to stand alongside him – she even dresses up in her husband’s uniform. But he isn’t interested in her courage. “Dress up like a soldier all you want, but it doesn’t change anything,” he huffs. So Aster throws herself into logistics, organising supplies, repairing uniforms, making bullets. “Who remembers what to do? she asks. Who remembers what it means to be more than what this world believes of us?”

Hirut wants to, and Mengiste allows it – again, using a wardrobe change. Freshly attired and standing beside the disguised emperor, “Hirut looks down at herself and marvels once again at what she sees. She is dressed as a Kebur Zebegna, a member of the emperor’s elite army. Her uniform, handed to her by Aster with unusual gentleness, have been perfectly sized to fit her”. The two women are finally, uncannily, on the same team, and Mengiste animates them with an energy their male counterparts are too weary to sustain.

“Hirut feels the tug of safety but one of her rifles slides off her back, lands in the crook of her arm, and she who has nothing left that is really hers understands there is no other way. She nods to Aster, throws down the extra rifle, and charges into the huddle of bodies, screaming with her eyes shut.” In a story about shadows, these silhouettes serve as its strategy, soldiers, and song.

Curiosity disappointed

Having developed such strong narrative momentum, Mengiste misplaces her energy in prolonged, peripheral backstories. The Italian photographer Ettore, sent to Ethiopia to document the war, suffers inevitable trauma after months of clicking prisoners jumping to their death, but it doesn’t seem necessary to read his parents’ letters to him word for word. Kidane and Aster mourn the death of their baby son throughout the novel; it’s not always clear whether this, or something else, is driving their chapters-long rage and jealousy.

Fifi aka Faven aka Ferres is a dignified, highly literate Ethiopian woman, as well as Italian commander Carlo Fucelli’s chosen whore, and both are given several pages that become excessive. By the time Mengiste returns to Hirut’s story, it is 1974, by which point she has become a “grateful mother of two strong daughters” and “closest friend and neighbour to the powerful Aster”. Who is she as a mother; what are her daughters like; how do she and Aster transform their relationship yet again? Mengiste disregards her reader’s curiosity and returns, disappointingly, to interior monologues by Ettore and Selassie.

The book ends soon after this, but the reader can continue following the country’s history in Mengiste’s first novel, Beneath The Lion’s Gaze, which is set in the Ethiopian civil war that begins in 1974. Protestors are spilling onto the streets, and the police presence is frightening. A young man tries to distract himself by recalling his mother teaching him how to dance.

“The body has to move when the heart doesn’t think it can, she’d said. She lifted his arm, clenched his fist around an imaginary weapon, and straightened his back. My father danced before going to battle; the heart follows the body”. Mengiste, ever careful with her words, uses this moment of perfect non-violence and total freedom to hint at the exact opposite, waiting in subsequent pages.

The Shadow King features the same jubilant dance scene when the troops decide to celebrate an impending attack against the Italians. “Hirut loses herself in the group, dancing and cheering and singing beneath the thick beam of light filtering through the trees. This is where all the light in the world has settled, she thinks. This is where it has been while she was struggling in such darkness.”

Mengiste proves, through her metaphors and her characters, that battle is as much choreography as it is chase; that fighters are women as well as men; that leadership is perceptive and unforgiving. Her “Author’s Note” says it best: “What I have come to understand is this: The story of war has always been a masculine story, but this was not true for Ethiopia and it has never been that way in any form of struggle. Women have been there, we are here now.”

The Shadow King

The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste, WW Norton & Co.