Once upon a time, there was a Jewish kingdom in the Caucasus mountains. No, really. Emily Barton takes the actual history of the Khazar khanate, pairs it with the Biblical story of Queen Esther, and runs with them in The Book of Esther. Barton imagines a world in which Khazaria was never conquered and survived until the twentieth century. As the book opens, the German Reich (yes, Nazis) have invaded Poland and Ukraine. They’re closing in on Khazaria’s borders and it seems like the kingdom might finally fall. The blend of history, the Bible, and Jewish folklore created an action-filled alternate history and fantasy that had me hooked from the first chapter. This book is packed with golemim, Kabbalists, mechanical horses, and on-the-fly religious reformation.
Esther is not the kind of girl who meekly accepts what she is told. She secretly takes food and supplies to European refugees who’ve gathered outside Atil, the capital of Khazaria. She listens in on her father’s meetings with members of the kagan’s (kind of a king/emperor figure) government. And when she hears that the Germans are about to invade, she refuses to let everyone else handle things because she thinks they are overcautious or overconfident or just bunglers. Like her Biblical namesake, Esther sets off to raise an army to save her country.
Esther’s first plan, however, is to have the Kabbalists turn her into a boy. If she’s a boy, Esther reasons, people will listen to her. She’s not wrong. Being discounted because of one’s gender is a theme throughout The Book of Esther. In the very traditional form of Judaism practiced in Khazaria, women and men inhabit very different, very separate spheres. Women taking on men’s roles is strictly prohibited. Esther’s first plan fails when she finds the Kabbalists. They tell her it isn’t possible. It would be interfering too much with god’s will—even though these are the guys who’ve created golems and golem horses to do manual labor.
Esther’s Plan B is to raise an army however she can. She begs. She orders. She promises. Most of the middle section of the book is a long build up as Esther musters her forces as the front moves closer and closer to Atil. Meanwhile, she also has to argue with people about what Jewish law does and does not allow and try not to get killed or shunted aside by the men who are supposed to be in charge.
It might not sound like it here, but I found the plot of this book enthralling. I read this long book in just a few sittings because I was completely hooked. Even if the plot were a little slow (which it isn’t), I would have stuck around for all the world-building. My rough knowledge of Yiddish and all the Jewish-based literature I’ve read over the years really came in handy as I read this one. (For example, the characters are really fond of accusing each other of telling bubbemeitze.) Barton steals from everywhere. While some readers might be miffed at the cultural and religious appropriation, I think she does a good job of being respectful while still criticizing people who follow the letter of the law too rigidly for their own good.
I usually don’t say too much about the endings of the books I review. That said, I feel the need to point out that this book is clearly not a stand alone. The ending of The Book of Esther does resolve the most immediate plot issues, but it definitely sets readers up for another book in the series. The war is not over yet.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 14 June 2016.