Monday, December 5, 2016

G736 Book Review of the book of Esther by Emily Barton

Name of Book: The Book of Esther

Author: Emily Barton

ISBN: 978-1-101-90409-1

Publisher: Tim Duggan Books

Type of book: alternative history, Khazar Jews, WWII, Esther retelling, female to male transgender character, Hitler, Judaism, meaning of life, spiritualism, Kabbalah, gender roles, desert, journey, path, Khazaria

Year it was published: 2016


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.


Main characters include Esther who happens to be daughter of one of the high officials and is best described as tomboyish and someone who wants to break through the shackles and isn't afraid of challenges. She is a young woman who will be getting married very soon. Itakh is a young boy who is Esther's adopted brother and despite that status he is treated as a slave. It is thought that he is Uighur. Amit is a young kabbalist who is very strict with rules and who has a secret that might help Esther accomplish her mission. Shimon is Esther's fiance and despite Esther's antics, he still likes her.


Its possible for anyone to be hero


The story is in third person narrative from Esther's point of view. Life in the desert as well as in Khazar was a bit foreign for me, but it also is enjoyable. I also think that the reader needs some understanding of Judaism in order to enjoy the story because quite a number of things are not explained within the text, and I can imagine that those who don't know anything will get lost in the story and will be uncertain as to what is going on.

Author Information:
(From back of the book)

Emily Barton is the authro of Brookland and The Testament of Yves Gundron, which were both selected as nerw York Times Notable Books. SHe has received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. Her essays, short stories, and reviews have appeared in Story, Conjunctions, The Massachusetts Review, Tablet, an THe New York Times Book Review, among amny other publications. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her husband and sons.


From reading some of the previous reviews, I got an impression that I wouldn't like the book, and I had these expectations as well: I won't like the book. I think this is the first time I read an alternative history book, and its one of the few times that I enjoyed science fiction story. I am saddened that people are not familiar with Judaism and they have no desire to change, which is why the book received negative reviews from a lot of people. I admit that the story is more similar to The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker, although it doesn't surpass The Golem and the Djinni. The story has adventure, some romance, and lots of philosophy about the nature of Golems and their desires as well as trying to find a balance between being a slave and being free, the role of women and what they can and cannot do and also that of them as the rulers.

I won this at LibraryThing

4 out of 5
(0: Stay away unless a masochist 1: Good for insomnia 2: Horrible but readable; 3: Readable and quickly forgettable, 4: Good, enjoyable 5: Buy it, keep it and never let it go.)


  1. Congrats on winning this book! Now this one I recognize! hehe A lot of the books you feature on your blog are new to me :)
    I do want to read The Golem and the Djinni one day and The Book of Esther is definitely on my TBR. Solid review.

  2. LOl yay! one you recognize. If I might, do read The Golem and the Djini, you'll love it. Little to previous knowledge of Judaism is required to enjoy it :D think of it as Jewish fantasy/science fiction. I should probably add reviews of other books in my reviews, I'm beginning to think.


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