What makes a heroine?
A heroine usually is a strong, independent woman who rises up against some type of conflict and takes control of her own fate. How a woman becomes a heroine is the main idea Emily Barton explores in her new novel, “The Book of Esther.”
Esther, of course, recalls the brave queen featured in the Purim story, who is memorialized every Purim along with her uncle, Mordechai. Barton’s main character shares with the famous queen a desire to stand up and fight for her people, as well as her stubbornness and bravery during a time when women were expected to be neither stubborn nor brave.
The book uses some of the characteristics of Esther in the Purim story to tell another story, this one loosely based on World War II. The enemy’s leader is called “Haman the Agagite,” as is the Purim villain, and Esther herself compares their situation to the story of Purim. This science-fiction novel, however, takes place in a different time and place: it’s 1942 in Eastern Europe; specifically, it’s in Khazaria, a powerful Jewish Central Asian kingdom that lies between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea and is targeted by an antagonistic nation known as Germania.
Like the biblical queen, 16-year-old Esther bat Josephus, the eldest daughter of the chief policy advisor, begins the novel as a relatively passive figure. She is from a traditional Jewish home and is set to marry the chief rabbi’s son, of whom she is unsure; she’s annoyed that she was unable choose her own husband: “Esther would have liked to invite Rukhl to the wedding and the Seven Blessings,” Barton writes. “But Esther had so little to do with choosing Shimon ben Kalonymos, she doubted she’d be allowed to choose her guests.” While she does like Shimon, Esther longs to make her own choices rather than having her family making them for her.
In her spare time, Esther secretly visits the refugee camp, which is filled with Jews who seek to escape the “Germanii,” and soon she realizes that the threat against her people is widening. She decides that she can no longer just be a bystander — she must fight to save her people. Because of the way women are devalued, Esther decides that in order to gain the respect she desires, she must transform herself into a man. To do this, she visits a sect of kabbalists in the village of Yetzirah, who are said to be able to perform magic. The story goes on from there.
In this novel, Barton weaves history with folklore, supernatural beings, including werewolves and golems, and steampunk elements like the mechanical horses that were used to ride into war, and aeroplanes, which she describes as being more or less like helicopters. In one chilling scene, the aeroplanes swarm the air around the city, causing fear among the people: “By now, a faint hum, as of a far-off swarm of locusts, approached from beyond the harvest plain… ‘It’s an aeroplane,’ he said, but kept scanning the sky. ‘It’s three of them, flying in a vee, like geese. More than three.’ Esther could now make them out, dark specks in the bright morning…”
The novel retells the story of World War II, combining history with high fantasy elements. Although some of these elements will keep the reader’s attention, at times they may be confusing. The way the author combines languages, mixing Hebrew and Yiddish phrases, also may not be altogether easy for someone who isn’t familiar with Judaism, Hebrew or Yiddish.
Esther is the very definition of a heroine. She is a woman who desires change and equality and at the same time is deeply rooted in her Jewish traditions. Throughout the novel, we can see that she enjoys Jewish rituals very much. The scenes with Shabbat meals at the kabbalists’ village, with much merriment, tasty food, and dancing, are especially endearing.
“The Book of Esther” features an array of diverse characters. They include Itakh, a slave boy who has been raised as Esther’s younger brother; Amit, who Esther meets when she is with the kabbalists, and Esther’s father, Josephus, a stern yet loving figure. The golems, which are made of clay and are servants of sorts to the kabbalists, who had fashioned them out of clay with kabbalistic magic, also are particularly captivating. Esther realizes that at times they show signs of humanity and compassion, but they are greatly discriminated against. Some moments with the creatures fuel the most enthralling scenes in the novel.
Some points of the novel, especially when Esther arrives and spends time at the kabbalist village, take unexpected twists and turns. Barton covers many topics, such as war, feminism, gender and gender roles, and family and Jewish values. Esther’s character goes through different stages of growth, forges new friendships, and ultimately achieves her goal of leading the army into battle.
The book, which spans 418 pages, packs in plenty of action, but then it ends on a frustratingly abrupt note, demanding a sequel. Barton’s novel is a inventive and detailed tale about a nation on the brink of war that will keep the reader interested through the last scene.