The Book of Esther by Emily Barton Review

Magic, gender bending, military fiction, Jewish lore and mysticism, reimagined history, and a dash of steampunk. All of those aforementioned topics that are seemingly unrelated come together beautifully in The Book of Esther to create a unique story for the ages. The writing and the amount of research that went into the story is astounding.  Emily Barton’s work is a breath of fresh air in the sometimes oversaturated fields of both historical fiction and steampunk.  Her ideas and prose make the novel stand out amongst its peers. It was riveting, and once past the midway point, I was not able to put it down.

The novel follows our young protagonist, Esther, on her journey to become a hero of biblical proportions. Born in the nation of Khazar kaganate (a powerful Jewish kingdom between Russia and Europe), she is confined to her traditional Jewish gender role.  While happy with some aspects of this (including marrying a boy she has feelings for), she is dissatisfied with many, such as not having a voice. When Germania forces loom at the door of Khazaria, Esther is forced to react to save both her kingdom and those she loves.  Embarking on a journey with a boy that is both a family member and a slave, Esther is forced to stand up against foes both known and unknown, as well as the gender roles that hold her back.

The writing in the novel was stupendous. Sumptuous and complex, it reminded me of a well-balanced glass of red wine.  Barton’s writing style is mature, which made a novel that could have been viewed as young adult, cross the barrier into the realm of adult fiction.  While at times there was a bit of a language barrier due to tossing in words untranslated, context clues typically provided the meaning. While at first it was frustrating, I was able to adjust by the end of the novel and it did not hinder my experience at all.

The plot was just bad ass.  Esther, while a strong protagonist, was not perfect.  She was 16 and came across as so.  She made various mistakes along the way that frustrated me, but was logical as well since she was a teen.  The fact her ultimate goal was to be made a man to lead an army and her country to victory was an amazing concept.  This gender bending potential twist was what drew me in initially. {Even though she was denied her request to become a man} her capabilities of pulling together and leading an army made her into such a bad ass heroine.  Was it entirely plausible that a 16 year old {female} could pull together an army in a country with such strong gender roles?  Most likely not, but it did make for an amazing story.  She did make some horrid tactical decisions, {storming a palace in the middle of a war and committing treason being one of the largest} however again I wrote it off as her being a teenager making very adult decisions that were over her head.

Along with the plot and writing, characterization was strong within this story.  Almost every single named character was dynamic and growing throughout the story, particularly the protagonist and my favorite kabbalist.  Both were very different people by the end of the story, improving in a positive manner overall.  Even some of the side characters exhibited growth and well-rounded personalities, a sign of a skilled writer.

I will note that this novel is not for everyone.  I particularly love historical fiction and religious lore, so I was drawn to the plot immediately.  However, due to the fact it was an alternative earth with an added country, as well as including things like steampunk, it did not follow either of those genres religiously.  There was also a great deal of info dumping, which I tend to enjoy (odd I know).  However, again, it is not for everyone.  If you’re not one to have patience with a novel to build a world and character depth, you will drop this novel in the first couple of chapters.  If you manage to hang on though, you will be rewarded with a rich novel that is action packed to boot.

I received a copy of this book for free from Blogging for Books