by Emily Barton

Tim Duggan Books


432pp/$27.00/June 2016

The Book of Esther
Cover by Michael Morrissey

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Emily Bartonís The Book of Esther is set during the second World War and looks at a the way a young girl living on the shores of the Caspian Sea prepares for a potential invasion by the Germans. However, rather than living in a Russian town, Esther lives in Atil, the capital of Khazaria, a Jewish nation that dates to the eighth century. Esther has made friends with the refugees who fled ahead of the Germani and are living in a camp outside Atil and knows that something must be done to stop the invasion.

Barton weaves as story of war, religious belief, and the supernatural as Esther elects to leave the relative safety of her home in search of a rumors town of kabbalists who might be able to transform her into a man so she can go to war against the Germans. Taking her family slave, Itakh, and a mechanical horse, Estherís journey across the plains introduces her to a variety of peoples and customs foreign to the rabbinic Judaism practiced among the Khazarian elite.

Estherís quest seems quixotic, a lone girl setting off to defeat the might of the Nazi armies. Although this quest is central to the novel, Barton is careful to layer levels of realistic detail, often only slightly different from our own world, to create a fully realized Khazarian culture as Esther comes into contact with the Uyghur oil men, Karaites, the kabbalists, and others. The world, even within the boundaries of Khazaria, is much more complex than she ever gave credence to living in her fatherís home in Atil.

While the setting and characters draw the reader in, Bartonís pacing does create an obstacle. The Khazarian steppes are vast and the reader feels every step of Estherís journey. Even after Esther begins to make the contacts that sheíll need to reach her goal, the pacing never fully seems to pick up. Furthermore, although there are some indications of the Germani advance, there is not real sense of impending or building doom. The reports of Germani advances as the cross the Donets and the Don are distant and off hand, without any sense of actual movement or fighting.

The majority of the action in Estherís world (and the war) is taking place in central Europe, where the Germani are annihilating the Jewish population as well as the countries that stand in their way. Located 3,000 miles from Berlin, Esther doesnít have very many details of what is happening in Europe and that ignorance is shared by the reader. In truth, the specifics of the war and how it resembles or differs from the war in our own timeline, isnít important. Estherís reaction to the bogeyman of the Germani and the way she rallies supporters against the amorphous threat is the important part of the novel.

The Book of Esther is an intriguing look at a world that might have been. A world which has had a Jewish state since the eighth century, yet still feels a need for a Jewish identify in the Mid-east, a world in which World War II happens, but isnít shown in all its horror, but is kept at a distance and the characters go about planning for their eventual encounter. Barton makes a lot of interesting points and gives the reader much to think about, even if her pacing doesnít quite match the skill with which the rest of the book was written.

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