"The Book of Esther" by Emily Barton

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Emily Barton constructs an alternate history for her adventure story The Book of Esther. A nation of Jewish warriors on the West Asian steppes faces an invasion from a formidable foe in 1942, the “Germanii.” The Kaganate of Khazaria, a principality located mainly between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea fights the aggressor with a combination of mechanical horses, pedal-propelled gliders, a thuggish group of oil drillers and dealers, and golems fabricated by an isolated group of Kabbalists.

These features of her fiction allow Ms. Barton to maintain a universe separate enough to take up her main themes of Jewish religious observance, Talmudic scholarship, the place of women in Jewish society, and in particular, the zeal and aspiration of Esther bat Josephus, a 16 year-old Joan of Ark-type figure who leads motley troops into battle against overwhelming odds.

This feels fresh and intriguing at the outset as we learn of this fictional empire with its ancient traditions, its armed forces (which for the era are a little outdated) and its encompassing Jewish culture. Young Esther has always been interested in politics and current events, and the imminent threat of invasion drives her to action. Such action will infuriate her father, a high advisor to the monarch, endanger numerous people who might not otherwise enter into combat, and fly in the face of all accepted norms of behavior for high-born teenage girls. None of this stops her or even slows her down.

Esther takes her adoptive brother, steals
a mechanical horse, and goes in search of the country’s kabbalists, a group of mystic clerics who can animate clay to make golems, the automatons who cannot be killed in combat. The story proceeds with good pace and leads up to the climactic battle in which the country’s ancient capital tries to repel the Wehrmacht. The author captures the desperation in the young girl’s quest, and bestows on her a lion’s fortitude and a believable share of success.

Ms. Barton tells all this quite vividly, and you get caught up in the inexorable forces of history. What this book does, it does very well, sustaining a fictional nation in an alternative 20th Century, steeping us in a unique and devout Jewish culture, and painting a portrait of a courageous and determined girl whose voyage of self-discovery takes her places none have been before.

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