The Book of Esther

May 3, 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

  • 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?
  • The Book of Esther

  • Before read­ing , 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?
  • The Book of Esther

  • 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?

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

  • 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?

  • 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?

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

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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 (tra­di­tion­al­ly, the body of texts that expli­cate Torah)?
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  • Why do you think Bar­ton chose to end this book where it does? Do you think this choice affects the novel’s the­mat­ic meaning?