In Emily Barton’s latest novel, “The Book of Esther,” Barton creates an alternate timeline where war wages between a Jewish warrior community and the country seeking to conquer it, Germania.
Refusing to hang back while destruction befalls her country, Esther, the titular character and the daughter of the chief policy adviser, makes a daring escape with her adopted brother acting as the family servant to investigate what may be her last hope: a village of mystics that could potentially transform her into a man.
Barton has combined technology and reimagined cultural ideals in a previous novel, “The Testament of Yves Gundron.” Her latest novel, “The Book of Esther,” is no exception.
The world of Esther’s community, Khazaria, is a compelling combination of Jewish tradition, lore and technology that some may describe as steampunk.
An interesting technology in particular are mechanical horses, which Esther sometimes takes for joyrides unbeknownst to her father. Described as lifelike but use oil, the mechanical horses are an interesting contrast to the more traditional aspects of the Khazaria world, for example, that Esther and her family often say morning and evening prayers. The novel also introduces lore from Jewish mythology and other places, including golems, which are beings created by earth and used as servants and volkelakes, creatures similar to werewolves.
Though the novel is meant as an alternate timeline taking place in the WWII era, “The Book of Esther” prompts the reader to reflect on WWII events concerning Jewish people, particularly the Holocaust, as similar themes of loss and inhumanity over humanity make themselves known, though in different ways and on a smaller scale. The message also becomes profound, as Barton herself is Jewish.
While the ending has been critiqued by some readers as abrupt, the pacing of the novel allows the reader to understand the world Esther lives, though a glossary may be helpful to have as the novel frequently uses terms from Jewish history and mythology.
“The Book of Esther” pulls the reader quickly into its world and fleshes out an independent and energetic protagonist, who courageously embraces her heritage and becomes unafraid to break rules when her country is threatened or injustice becomes present, paralleling her biblical namesake.