Title: The Book of Esther
Author: Emily Barton
What if an empire of Jewish warriors that really existed in the Middle Ages had never fallen—and was the only thing standing between Hitler and his conquest of Russia?
Eastern Europe, August 1942. The Khazar kaganate, an isolated nation of Turkic warrior Jews, lies between the Pontus Euxinus (the Black Sea) and the Khazar Sea (the Caspian). It also happens to lie between a belligerent nation to the west that the Khazars call Germania—and a city the rest of the world calls Stalingrad.
After years of Jewish refugees streaming across the border from Europa, fleeing the war, Germania launches its siege of Khazaria. Only Esther, the daughter of the nation’s chief policy adviser, sees the ominous implications of Germania’s disregard for Jewish lives. Only she realizes that this isn’t just another war but an existential threat. After witnessing the enemy warplanes’ first foray into sovereign Khazar territory, Esther knows she must fight for her country. But as the elder daughter in a traditional home, her urgent question is how.
Before daybreak one fateful morning, she embarks on a perilous journey across the open steppe. She seeks a fabled village of Kabbalists who may hold the key to her destiny: their rumored ability to change her into a man so that she may convince her entire nation to join in the fight for its very existence against an enemy like none Khazaria has ever faced before.
The Book of Esther is one of those rare novels that takes a biblical story, and heroine, and transforms it into a book for the masses. Even those who are not familiar with Esther from the bible will love this novel, and they will enjoy the fantasy appeal that it presents.
Emily Barton writes with a strong historical knowledge of the time period and story of which she is writing, but she also has a firm grip on steampunk and fantasy elements. She intertwined fantasy with history in a way that was believable, and I fell easily into her world.
Jewish culture is often something that it intertwined hand in hand with the Holocaust, but this novel explored more than that connection. It clearly represented the Jewish culture in terms of the language, settings and habits used, and I found it to be the “grown up” version of Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin. It holds a strong sense of love and hope for the Jewish culture, while also applying biblical stories to more contemporary times. Barton beautifully explored the concept that men have more power than women, and she did so by exploring how Esther went looking for magic that would turn her into a man. She wanted to become a man so that she could convince people to fight for what is right, and it was sad to see how she felt the need to go through with this; however, she had the passion and the drive and knew that she would be taken more seriously if she appeared as a man.
Barton is clearly a strong storyteller, and one that incorporates an unapologetic love for the bible and the lessons it teaches. She also challenges certain concepts present in the bible, and isn’t afraid to mix them with mysticism and lore. Her novel preserves the Jewish culture with a modern take on Esther, and invites people of all races, religions and cultures to enter her world. The Book of Esther was a roller coaster of events that didn’t tip toe around the reader’s comfort zone, and Barton forced you to not only confront our past, but our present as well. She made it clear that our present is not as progressive as we may think, and by comparing it to biblical themes, we are forced to stare that truth directly in the face.
I am Esther, and like my namesake before me, I will save the Jewish people.
And indeed, she did.
*I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.*
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