The Book of Esther, Emily Barton. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017.
Summary: An alternative historical fiction in which a Jewish daughter of the Kagan of Khazaria breaks with her father and convention to lead her people in battle against the invading German army in 1942.
This is not the biblical story of Esther. But, like the biblical story, a young woman of influence breaks with convention to save her people from a threat that could destroy the Jewish people of her land. It is 1942. The Germanii are sweeping across Eastern Europe and Khazaria. Esther’s homeland stands in the way of oil fields, and Russia beyond. The people have known of this threat as Jewish refugee camps have sprung around Atil, filled with those fleeing the pogroms. Esther secretly has been visiting the camps to bring food, and has heard the reports and knows that if the Germanii succeed, it will spell the end of the Kaganate of Khazaria and her people.
Khazaria? Where is that? You won’t find that country on any modern map, and this is the “alternate history” aspect of this novel. Khazaria did at one time exist where it is located in the novel, between 600 and 950 AD. The people were a semi-nomadic Turkic people with a significant Jewish population. Located astride the Silk Road northeast of Turkey, southeast of Ukraine and between the Black and Caspian seas and separating Europe and western Asia, it was a strategic location, and hence its people warrior-like in its defense. Today Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and part of Russia make up the territory once encompassing Khazaria.
No one has a fiercer warrior heart in this story than Esther, though she is not yet sixteen, the daughter of the Kagan, and betrothed to a rabbi’s son. Fearing the German threat and knowing the inadequacy of her country’s forces, she becomes convinced that Adonai is calling her to act to save her people. With her slave brother Itakh, she steals her father’s mechanical horse, Seleme, and sets off to a distant village of kabbalists. Why? As a girl, she believes the only way she can lead her people is as a male, and hopes the kabbalists have the power to change her into one. Along the way, she both stares down the war lords controlling the oil to secure fuel for mechanical horse, and kills a werewolf. She is what we might call one “badass” woman, while yet trying to be a devout Jew!
The kabbalists welcome her, recognizing something of the destiny upon her. They do not have it in their power, or perhaps will, to change her gender, believing it to be set by God. Yet one of them, Amit tells a different tale. He once was a girl, but through a prayer while cleansing in the mikvah, was transformed. Esther tries this, but remains unchanged. It seems her desire is more to be able to lead her people into battle than to be a man and that is what she is granted. But the kabbalists, who are served by golemim, creatures of the clay of the earth supposedly without souls who have a human form, do help her by giving Esther all their golemim and by making more.
She returns to Atil, after recruiting troops and supplies from the oil lords, and more people from the villages, along with more mechanical and golem horses and aerocycles. (Many reviewers note this work has a steampunk flavor to it). How will her father treat her when she returns? Will she be allowed, as a Jewish Joan of Arc, to lead this rag tag force? And will it make a difference? All I will say is that Barton leaves room for a sequel.
The book explores Esther’s awakening sexuality and gender identity. There is her quest to be changed into a man, though this seems less shaped by her sense of gender identity than by cultural necessity. Yet there is Amit, with whom she develops an attraction, only to subsequently humiliate him for being a kind of trans male. Why is she drawn to him, is it to the man, or to the woman he once was, or some combination?
More significant to the plot is the question of gender roles. How can Esther join in the fight for her people when war was what men did, and women suffered? What if this violates what seems to be a sacred ordering of the world and one is devout, as is Esther? What if it truly seems that Adonai is calling her to this, even though it seems to violate her religious teaching?
Most of all is the more fundamental question of the promises of Adonai and the struggle for existence, and yet survival of the Jews that has been their history. This story brings us face to face with that perilous history.
If you don’t mind alternate history, and a mix of fable and mechanical wizardry, you might like this work. All in all, the questions this books explored made for a work at once thought-provoking and riveting as Esther confronts challenge after challenge in her mission to save her people. If there is a sequel, I’ll be very tempted to read it!
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher via Blogging for Books. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.