In her latest novel The Book of Esther, Emily Barton weaves a tale of Judaism, alternative history, feminism, gender identity, mysticism, steam punk and the medieval Khazar kingdom all set in within the World War II of 1942. There’s a lot at stake when an author is juggling so many different elements that could easily fall apart and not work as a cohesive narrative.
The heroine, Esther bat Josephus, takes her name from the biblical character. She lives in Khazaria (it was a buffer state between the Byzantine Empire and the nomad of the northern steppes and Umayyad Caliphate) this one lies between the Pontus Euxinus (the Black Sea) and the Khazar Sea (Caspian), between what the Khazars call “Germania” and Russia. Seeing how the Germania will be invading her country and the threat that it forms against the survival of Judaism, she decides to undertake a perilous journey to raise up an army to fight.
While the book is fantastical and bares elements of magical realism and steampunk, what really fascinated me about the book was not those elements but Barton’s abilit to ask deep, philosophical and theological questions in the midst of all the action. The novel is filled with Jewish identity and she uses this to ask: What does it mean to be a Jew? Does one have to believe in both the Torah and the Talmud?
Using both the character of Ithakh, a slave boy owned by Esther’s father, a royal advisor, and through the use of the golems as Esther finds herself asking: What does it mean to be human? What is a slave and what is free?
There’s a fierceness to the novel, especially in Esther who questions what it means to be Jewish and fight for one’s survival, how one can be leader and a warrior while being female. Esther is full of passion and ambition, which can be her strength and her weakness. Esther is deeply religious and moral, but finds herself breaking both religious and cultural rules in order to save her people. She struggles with how is one faithful to one’s God while at the same time leading a people in war?
Through the character of Amit, Emily Barton also wrestles with the idea of gender identity in a way that works within the context of the novel but, at the same time, is very culturally relevant. Like Esther, Amit struggles with what he believes is right and what is going on in the world around him. He is deeply religious and tries to adhere to the tenets of the Kabbalists and their teachings.
Taking existing myths, Barton is able to weave one of her own in a world that is imaginatively fleshed out and fascinating. What keeps all of the magical elements rooted is the religious ones that make this story richer, deeper and far more interesting than the usual steampunk and fantasy fare.
Emily Barton’s official website: