Blogging for Books: The Book of Esther

I’m back! And I’m starting with a long-overdue book review. But it’s ok, because I just finished this book a week ago! It was, shall we say, a slog and a half. The only reason it got finished was because I had to much plane/airport time in the past two weeks, because I was barely 100 pages in for a year. Yeah, an actual year. I put more time into wondering if I should just write the review as a “did not finish” than try powering through. But I am glad I powered through.

book of esther

The Book of Esther by Emily Barton references the Biblical book of Esther, wherein (in a gross oversimplification) Queen Esther saves her people from Genocide and lays the basis for the Jewish holiday Purim. The Book of Esther is about Esther, the daughter of a Royal Adviser, who sees the impending threat World War II poses to Jewish culture and sets out to, well, stop a genocide. The book is written in a magical realism style and plays on concepts and place names and traditions to create a kind of alternate reality.

And fails to engage.

Esther bat Josephus decides to leave her home in Khazaria and find a group of Kabbalists who will hopefully change her into a man so that she can join the fight against Germania. Khazaria references a real kingdom which historically was located between the Black and Caspian seas in an area we’d now know as “Caucus states.”

Barton explains absolutely nothing, however, and my own research into Khazaria didn’t really translate into insight when it came to reading the book. I am not Jewish by faith or heritage but I’ve felt that I have a pretty decent layperson’s understanding of the faith, especially the mystical (Kabbalah) side of things just because of my interest in studying religions. It’s entirely possible that I’m wrong about that, but I think it’s equally possible that Barton just failed to show OR tell anything about the world she was trying to create.

Another area where Barton fails is weaving in the magical realism. I am a huge fan of magical realism and that’s a genre where I do feel that I have strong footing. A magical realism novel set during WWII and focusing on a Jewish perspective sounded like a truly, well, magical, recipe to me. But more than enchanted I was confused. One of the big “characters” in the book is Seleme, Esther’s “mechanical horse.” Which is mostly described just like a motorcycle, but actually is supposed to be a horse that is mechanical?

There are plenty of interesting threads in the book that don’t come to fruition. Esther is a teenager growing into womanhood and questioning and testing her relationship to her faith and society as she grows and begins exploring her place in the world and her sexuality. This goes nowhere.

The book has a transgender* character who is intended to (I think) represent the difficulty of managing a desire for knowledge in a restrictive and gender-segregated society, but it goes nowhere. Also this character is just the absolute WORST and part of a totally useless, underdeveloped love triangle that kind of dances around Esther exploring her sexuality but just never commits to it in any capacity.

* Using the term ‘transgender’ feels a little wrong here, the character does undergo a change but the motivation is less “I was born in the wrong body” and more “these doors are closed to me unless I am a man,” which is the same motivation behind Esther’s quest to transition. I didn’t get the impression that either character, least of all Esther, would consider this kind of change in a society without those restrictions. This seems like an oversimplified (though certainly respectable, especially historically!) view of gender identity. But I cisgender so maybe I’m getting this all wrong too.

Things I did like: the pigeons, the exploration of religious devotion and sentience that was explored in the golems, the theme of uniting people from all different backgrounds to help the common good.

2 stars.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.