‘This is where all the light in the world has settled’—Read an excerpt from The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

The JRB presents an excerpt from Maaza Mengiste’s novel The Shadow King, shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize for Fiction.

The Shadow King
Maaza Mengiste
WW Norton, 2019

Read the excerpt:



Go back. Open the bedroom door and send young Aster down the stairs. Place the groom on his feet and draw him away from the bed. Wipe the sheet clean of the bride’s blood. Shake it straight and flatten its wrinkles. Slide off that necklace and return it to the girl as she races to her mother. Fix what has been broken in her, mend it shut again. Clothe him in his wedding finery. Let there be no light. Allow only shadows into this kingdom of man’s making. See him alone in the room. See him free of a father’s attention. See him step beyond the reach of elders and all who advise growing boys on the perils of weakness. Here is Kidane, shaking loose of unseen bindings. Here he is, gifting himself the freedom to tremble. All advice has been taken back and he is no longer the groom instructed to break flesh and draw blood and bring a girl to earthy cries.

See this man in the tender moment before he takes his wife. See him wrestle with the first blooms of untapped emotion. Let the minutes stretch. Remove the expectations of a father. Remove the admonishments to stand tall and stay strong. Eliminate the birthright, the privilege of nobility, the weight of ancestors and blood. Erase his father’s name and that of his grandfather’s father and that of the long line of men before them. Let him stand in the middle of that empty bedroom in his wedding tunic and trousers, in his gilded cape and gold ring, and then disappear his name, too. Make of him nothing and see what emerges willingly, without taint of duty or fear.

When Hirut and Aklilu get back to the campfire, they pause, surprised by the exuberant scene in front of them. Men and women have formed a large circle and are dancing near the women’s camp, a spontaneous celebration after Kidane’s announcement that they will wage war against the Italians from here. They will not march into other territory. They will fight on familiar ground. The women leap, their figures caught in pale moonlight, illumined by the glowing campfire. Hirut puts a hand to her chest, made unsteady by this unexpected pleasure, her headache disappearing. Aklilu smiles down at her, then tugs her into the circle of dancers. He steps in front of her and settles his hands on his waist, and nods as Minim’s masinqo starts beating out a gentle melody that is getting faster. Aklilu leans toward her and for a moment, she is breathless, captivated by his agility and the wide grin. He shakes his shoulders, the first moves of an expert eskesta dancer, then beckons her with his eyes to follow suit. Hirut steps forward, her chest near him, and lets herself go free, lets her shoulders move of their own accord, lets them shiver as if the weight of bones and blood did not exist. They dance, each leaping high, then higher, their bodies shivering and caught in the surge of cheers and shouts. Minim nods to her and begins to sing of the great warrior Aklilu and the woman who conquered his heart, and the two who move together to fight for mother Ethiopia.

A burst of ululations rises up as the singer’s voice climbs, trembling with emotion, his pitch high and sweet. Hirut blinks back the tears to get a better look at those who have gathered around her, and encourage them on. This is happiness, she thinks, this is what it means to be free. As she dances with Aklilu, her rhythm bending his, his propelling her faster, she feels the tears climb into her eyes, and then she does not care when they roll down her cheek as she begins to sing and Aklilu sees and nods and smiles gently at her and draws closer. She leaps, her heart pounds erratically, her legs stay firm and strong. Only once, she searches for Aster but cannot see her, so 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.


  • Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Maaza Mengiste received a 2020 Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Also a Fulbright Scholar and a professor at Queens College, she is the author of The Shadow King and Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, and a 2018 recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. She lives in New York City.


About the book

Shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, and named a best book of the year by the New York Times, NPR, Elle, Time, and more, The Shadow King is an ‘unforgettable epic from an immensely talented author who’s unafraid to take risks’ (Michael Schaub, NPR).

Set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, The Shadow King takes us back to the first real conflict of World War II, casting light on the women soldiers who were left out of the historical record. At its heart is orphaned maid Hirut, who finds herself tumbling into a new world of thefts and violations, of betrayals and overwhelming rage. What follows is a heartrending and unputdownable exploration of what it means to be a woman at war.

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