August 8, 2016 by Zoë
In The Book of Esther by Emily Barton, the Germans have been steadily moving east, pushing waves of Jewish refugees ahead of them–those who managed not to simply disappear. Esther wants to fight to protect her home and her people, but how can she do that when she is a girl? Nevertheless, she runs away from home to do what she can.
I belatedly saw that this book is categorized as religious fiction, but there was nothing about it that was terribly preachy, as has been the case for all other “religious fiction” books that I have read (admittedly few). The book obviously features a cast of deeply religious Jews, but Judaism is simply one more part of the world building.
This book is an alternate history exploring what would have happened if there was a Jewish kingdom in eastern Europe during World War II. In this version of the world, this kingdom has its own sort of technology: mechanical horses instead of automobiles, and other sorts of inventions. This all made for interesting and fleshed out world building, though as some other reviewers have pointed out, it did seem somewhat backward compared to the World War II-era technology that Germany clearly still possesses. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the world both in terms of everyday life and in terms of all the different expressions of Judaism that were portrayed.
A lot is ultimately left hanging. The outcome of the war, and even single battles, is left unresolved. The fates of all the characters are also left uncertain. Many large, philosophical questions are raised regarding the essence of humanity and of souls which are also not resolved. If you’re looking for a neat ending, this is not the book for you.
Overall, I enjoyed this book, though I did find that the plot dragged at times. Interesting questions were raised about gender and humanity (though, as I said, not necessarily answered). Esther was sometimes a very annoying main character, saying very stupid things and not appearing to think at all. At other times, though. I really liked her. If you’re into world building and alternate histories, check this one out.
“If I lop it off, I’ll be a girl with short hair, an unmarriageable daughter. What I need is to be a boy.”
I received an electronic copy of this book through NetGalley.