A World War II alternative history, mixed with the medieval Khazar kingdom, a female warrior protagonist and some mythic creatures all make The Book of Esther: A Novel by Emily Barton an imaginative read. Esther bat Josephus is living the life of a privileged Khazar daughter in a traditional home, about to be married to the chief Rabbi’s son, when the mighty armies of Germania first cross into her country. No one seems willing to take them seriously, but as the determined daughter of the nation’s chief policy advisor and having ties to the refugee camp, Esther believes that something must be done before the armies of Germania destroy her beloved Khazaria. Esther is determined to fight, but as a woman there is little she can do. She runs away from home with Itakh, the slave she considers her brother, to seek out the mystic kabbalists in hopes that they can help turn her into a man who can lead her proud people to victory.
Barton’s world building in this alternative history is engaging and detailed, with steampunk vibes. The Khazar Jews practice biblical style slavery, in the 1940’s, and worship a God who has a distinctly feminine side. Barton even peppered the story with words in the language she imagined the Khazar Jews would have spoken. There are mechanical horses, that fight with their teeth and have personalities. Aerocycles pedaled by Khazari warriors fly through the sky and pigeons carry messages from place to place. Werewolves come out at night on the steppe, adding another danger to this richly imagined landscape. Golems are created by hand from clay in secret to form a formidable army. The beauty of the imaginative world is sometimes hampered by the slow pacing, but Barton is clearly a brilliant writer. Pitting a steampunk army against the might of the Nazis seems hopeless though. While the ending is left ambiguous, my entire reading of this book was colored by my knowledge of historical fact. No matter how many Golems are created, how can they stand up to an army of panzers, mustard gas, machine guns, and planes. Overall, Barton has created a fascinating look at gender roles, equality, faith, community and history.
Note: I received a free copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review
Published by Sarah BooksBeforeBandaids