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Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Book of Esther by Emily Barton: A Jewish Joan of Arc in an Alternate WWII

This is a review that I originally wrote for Flying High Reviews.  Yet I wanted to write a more extended version, and thought it would be more appropriate to post here.

The best excuse for an alternate history is that it makes a good story.  There are two types of alternate histories that I enjoy.  One type is an improvement on history.   I really wish that history had gone the way the author describes in the novel.   Some alternate histories that I've come across are dystopias.   These are good stories if they provide a meaningful conflict with some insight into problems that we are wrestling with in our own timeline.   I've reviewed a number of alternate history dystopias recently on this blog.  

The Book of Esther by Emily Barton is an alternate history of the first type.   It would be wonderful if history had gone this way.   Once upon a time there was a Jewish kingdom on the steppes bordering with Russia.  It was called Khazaria.  This kingdom actually existed, but in our universe it was overrun and destroyed during the medieval period.   Its inhabitants scattered throughout Eastern Europe.  Occasionally, you see Jews born with red hair.  They probably have Khazar genes, but the culture of the Khazars has vanished.  Now imagine that the Kingdom of the Khazars was still in existence during WWII and that Jewish refugees fled there.  I was intrigued by this concept and received a digital galley for free from Edelweiss.


The Germans are poised to invade Khazaria.  Esther, the protagonist, doesn't want to stand on the sidelines.  She wants to help save Khazaria from the Nazis. The problem is that the Khazars are Orthodox Jews who expect women to aspire only to marriage and motherhood.   She has an arranged engagement to a childhood friend.  She would be happy to marry him under normal circumstances, but the situation for Khazars is far from normal.  So Esther sets out for the legendary village of the Kabalists ,who are Jewish mystics and magicians.  She hopes to ask them  to change her into a man.   Nothing happens as Esther expects, but she does discover that she can play an important role in saving Khazaria.    This is definitely the sort of female central character that fans of this blog want to hear about.  

Since I am one of the ideal readers for The Book of Esther, I loved it.  It's obviously intended for readers who are very well-educated in Judaism.   Jewish customs and religious terminology aren't explained.   Neither is the structure of Khazar society.   So if you've read about the Khazars, as I have, you will also have a leg up in understanding who is who in this novel.   A glossary and recommended bibliography would have been very useful for many readers who have professed themselves mystified in their Goodreads reviews of this novel.  I'm not sure why Barton would have purposely narrowed her audience.
If you're inclined to research the books you read,  I think that Barton's book will reward you for this effort.   Esther is a courageous and intelligent heroine, and there is one rather surprising character that she encounters among the Kabalists.

This novel makes extensive and very interesting use of golems.  These are figures from Jewish folklore who will be recognized by those who encountered one in The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, a very well received historical fantasy taking place in late 19th century New York.   My main criticism of Wecker's book is that she made it easy to leave the late 19th century concept of women's role unexamined by making her female protagonist a golem. Barton, on the other hand, raises questions about golems that reminded me of how Socrates disturbed the intentions of the Goddess Athena for her robots in The Just City.  This was a time travel fantasy by Jo Walton which I reviewed on this blog  here .  In my review of The Just City I declared myself on Team Socrates because Socrates stood up for everyone's rights.  While reading  The Book of Esther,   I wrote in my notes at one point that I was on Team Golem because Barton gave golems more agency than the robots in Walton's book by allowing golems to express their own perspective.   When golems show evidence of  consciousness, we have to ask ourselves about the ethics of viewing golems solely as obedient servants.  So I thought that The Book of Esther approached golems with more complexity than Helene Wecker had in The Golem and the Jinni where the female protagonist's entire personality was predetermined by the fact that she was a golem.

I decided to bring up one other issue that has been raised in Goodreads reviews of The Book of Esther.  Many people wondered about the rest of the world beyond Khazaria.   They thought that Barton had the responsibility to show us more to develop her alternate world.   They had questions about that world.     Since nothing happened outside of Khazaria in The Book of Esther, I thought that Barton's level of information was appropriate.  I believe that authors should only tell readers what they need to know when they need to know it.   I also thought that Barton's task of developing Khazaria itself was challenging enough without adding the previous alternate history of Europe as a whole.  I admit that when I saw a reference to the Ottomans late in this book, I wondered about how the survival of the Ottoman Empire in this alternate 1942 would have impacted Palestine.   In our universe, the Ottoman Empire was dismembered in 1920.  Evidently, there were differences in how WWI and its aftermath proceeded in Barton's continuity.  Yet it seems to me that it makes sense to answer questions if and when they are relevant to the plot.  There may be a sequel.  If that happens, Barton may find it necessary to answer some of our questions about her world.  


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