Review of The Book of Esther: An Unusual Mix of History and Fantasy

Sometimes, even after I read the synopsis of a book, I’m not quite prepared for its contents. This is what happened when I read The Book of Esther by Emily Barton.

Review of The Book of Esther

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About the Book…

(From the book’s description on Amazon) “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 a profound saga of war, technology, mysticism, power, and faith. This novel—simultaneously a steampunk Joan of Arc and a genre-bending tale of a counterfactual Jewish state by a writer who invents worlds “out of Calvino or Borges” (The New Yorker)—is a stunning achievement. Reminiscent of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, The Book of Esther reaffirms Barton’s place as one of her generation’s most gifted storytellers.”

Review of The Book of Esther

My Thoughts…

I’ve read books that mixed a little historical accuracy with a good dose of fantasy. I often find myself enjoying those. But The Book of Esther was just too odd for me. There is a strange mix of Jewish history from the Holocaust, weird technology, and fantastical situations. So many of the words and ideas are even invented, that I was struggling to just picture the story.
One critic from the book’s back cover calls the book a “kind of steampunk fantasia,” and I’ll admit that, although I consider myself fairly well-read,  I didn’t really know what “steampunk” literature was. If you are interested in The Book of Esther, you might want to understand that, because I think an understanding would have helped me to choose- or not choose- this book a little more knowledgeably. 
If you enjoy the odd, the unusual, the sometimes bizarre, you may find yourself enjoying The Book of Esther. It just wasn’t “my thing.” You can find the book here on Amazon.

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