The Book of Esther

Tim Duggan Books  2016


Eastern Europe, August 1942. The Khazar KHaganate, an isolated nation of Turkic warriors, lies between the Black and the Caspian Seas, caught between a belligerent nation to the west that the Khazars call Germania and a city the rest of the world calls Stalingrad.

After years of Jewish refugees fleeing the war and streaming across the border from Europa, Germania launches its siege on Khazaria. Only Esther, the daughter of the nation's chef policy adviser, sees the ominous implications of Germania's disregard for Jewish lives. Only she realizes that this isn't just another war but an existential threat. After witnessing the enemy warplanes' first foray into sovereign Khazar territory, Esther knows she must fight for her country. But as the elder daughter in a traditional home, her urgent question is how.

Before daybreak one morning, she embarks on a perilous journey across the open steppe. She seeks a fabled village of Kabbalists who may hold the key to her destiny: convincing her entire nation to join the fight for its very existence against an enemy like none Khazaria has ever faced before.

Discussion Questions

Courtesy of Emily Barton

  1. The Book of Esther creatively blends a reimagined WWII political backdrop, a steampunk (or dieselpunk) fantasy landscape, a Joan of Arc character, commentary on the role of women in Judaism, historical Khazars brought forward into the twentieth century, and the bones of the story of Esther from the Bible. What did you make of the result? Did this book remind you of other recent novels that reimagine history?

  2. Before reading The Book of Esther, were you familiar with the biblical story of Esther and the Jewish festival of Purim? If not, what have you learned since reading this book? In what ways does this Esther remind you of her biblical counterpart, and in what ways does she surprise you?

  3. When Esther’s father refuses to allow her a say in planning Khazaria’s defense, Esther disobeys him and runs away from home with Itakh. Do you think she was right to follow her own moral compass, even though it meant defying her father? What would you have done in her shoes?

  4. Amit reveals a secret to Esther and Itakh about his past. How do you think The Book of Esther contributes to our contemporary conversation surrounding LGBTQ issues?

  5. Both Amit and Esther take very different paths to achieving goals that seemed out of reach because of their gender. Who do you think is more successful? More transgressive? And were you surprised that Amit is often infl exible about “the way things are done” in light of his secret?

  6. How do you feel about the love triangle between Esther, Shimon, and Amit? What do you make of the nature of Esther’s relationship with Amit?

  7. What significance does Esther’s encounter with the volkelake hold? Why does it sway other characters’ opinions of her?

  8. Seleme and the golems display wills of their own although they are man-made. Esther struggles with understanding their roles in the world, as well as their relationships to herself, to her fellow humans, and to God. How did you feel about her empathy toward the golems and mechanical horses? Did you, like Esther, wonder whether they might have souls or spirits of some kind?

  9. Itakh is a slave and has far fewer opportunities than Esther, even though he is considered a “son” of the household. Over time, Esther comes to believe that Khazaria’s system of slavery (which differs from more typical ways we under- stand slavery in our world) is unfair. Do you think that she will act on this new realization after the war ends? Do you think she will be able to make a difference?

  10. Is it important that Esther and the other principal characters in this story are young people? Why or why not? If you think their age is important, what role do you think it plays in shaping the narrative?

  11. Esther and Shimon break tradition by working on the Sabbath, saying that war makes it necessary and therefore allowable. Others, like some of the refugees, strongly disagree. Who would you side with? Can you think of any moral codes or religious observances you would bend or break in extreme circumstances?

  12. If you are at all familiar with contemporary Jewish religious practices, what differences do you notice between those and what the various Jewish characters practice in the book? How does this fictional Judaism reflect on the real world? In writing about a somewhat different form of Judaism, is Barton engaged in a sort of modern-day midrash (traditionally, the body of texts that explicate Torah)?

  13. Why do you think Barton chose to end this book where it does? Do you think this choice affects the novel’s thematic meaning?

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