So a couple of weeks ago the finalists for the 2020 Giller Prize were announced. That’s the award for the best Canadian fiction of the year. I’ve already added them to my wishlist, and my 2021 reading list, because I am a pretentious literary fiction junkie. At the moment I’m still working my way through the 2020 Booker Prize shortlist, currently into The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste.
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All of this preamble is because upon telling people that I’m reading a book called The Shadow King, people assume it’s a fantasy novel. This is where I’m supposed to say that I have nothing against the fantasy genre. It sounds dismissive to say that some of the authors that fostered my love of reading, who remain favorite writers to this day, were fantasy authors. My day job is, or at least used to be, fantasy-fiction adjacent. But good God almighty, rescue us from the current glut of fantasy fiction and the people who read nothing but.
No, It’s Not Fantasy
Before I started reading this book, I went to the Amazon reviews. Per usual, I dove straight to the one-star reviews to see how much of the usual idiocy I’d find there. Ah, yes, the consensus of the reviewers at the bottom is that this book is slow-paced and boring. Kind of the universal rallying cry against literary fiction.
This is my issue. Not everything is easy to read, nor should it be. Books don’t have to be fast-paced and packed with slam-bang action. I say this, remember, as a unrepentant hack writer in the finest pulp tradition. Sometimes it’s good if you have to work for it. You exercise your brain. Maybe you even learn some things. Angels and ministers of grace defend us from lazy readers.
It’s the same problem that, in my opinion, is plaguing film right now. I watched Orlando the other day, for around the 97,863rd time in my life. It is a beautiful movie. A challenging one to boot. I would also call it one of the few films that I feel is better than the novel it’s based on. When I mentioned it to a friend, he sort of rolled his eyes at me, and told me the film was too long and painfully dull. Then he went on to express his anger that the release of the next Marvel film, Black Widow, has been pushed back again.
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
This novel is set in the 1930s, during Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. It features women soldiers working to repel the Italian colonization. The whole book is about war through the eyes of women. The author, who is Ethiopian-American, based it in part on her family history. How can you call that dull? Oh, it’s not all heroic fight scenes and explosions. It’s a lot of feelings, and dealing with the realities of living in a war zone. There are no Big Damn Heroes looking for glory. Just people with grit trying to protect their families and communities.
This is the best thing I’ve read all year. I haven’t read all of the novels on the Booker shortlist yet, but I would be neither surprised nor disappointed if this won. In fact, I enjoyed this so much that I’ve added Mengiste’s previous novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, to my reading list.
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About Berin Kinsman
Berin Kinsman is a writer, simple living minimalist, and spoonie. By day he works as the owner/publisher at Dancing Lights Press. An American by accident of birth, he currently lives in Finland with his wife, artist Katie Kinsman.