Having known the biblical story of Esther from a young age, I always thought of perhaps tackling the epic story of courage and betrayal myself. It lends itself well to the “chosen one” formula, except rather than a young farm boy saving a mythic land from an evil overlord, it’s a young girl who becomes queen to save a whole people. Though I’ll admit, I’m more familiar with the VeggieTales retelling of Esther than I am with the actual story, and if you know that series, then you know they’re going to make it a G-rated offering. It may sound insensitive, but the running thread through any variation of Esther’s story, including VeggieTales, is summoning the courage to do what’s right, and Rebecca Kanner’s novel rendition is no different.
Esther, or Hadassah, was only fourteen when she was taken to be a concubine to the king of Persia, Xerxes. Though she never forgets the danger of advancing in the king’s favor as a secret Jew, she navigates the cruel Persian court with compassion and intelligence, while soon learning she might have a greater purpose than she ever could have imagined.
The first step to making a good chosen-one story is for the chosen one to be relatable, and Esther does this quite well. Esther is an orphan with only Mordecai, her cousin, to care for her, and she has been thrust into a world where beauty and subservience are the keys to survival. Although courage is what will save Esther, we see quite early that she is bold: she stands up to soldiers bearing whips and even tries to defy the king when she visits him for the first time. She’s beautiful, but she is even more compelling for her forthright.
The cast of characters is nice as well. From the Bible, we have Mordecai, Esther’s cousin and court accountant, who is pious, but brave and loving, and Haman, the king’s advisor, devious and all around despicable. From the author, we get Ruti, Esther’s main servant and confidant, and Hegai, the head eunuch of the harem, who will teach Esther how to please the king, and is essentially the sassy gay friend of pre-common-era Persia. Halannah is the basic mean girl of the harem, who plots and works behind Esther’s back to sabotage her chances at becoming queen.
These characters are compelling, but I was most taken in by Esther’s relationship with the king, Xerxes, and Erez, a guard who takes pity on Esther after she is captured. Esther has to spend a whole year learning the tricks to pleasing Xerxes, so the buildup to his entrance cannot be understated. Xerxes is a moody expansionist brat who doesn’t like being told no, but he never comes across as wicked, despite his womanizing ways and ill temper. In fact, he and Esther have a few very genuine moments together. When his life is saved, he is genuinely grateful, and any disrespect to that savior is not tolerated at all.
Esther’s relationship with Erez is a little clumsily handled. It is revealed that Erez was the soldier who took Esther from her home, and yet, Esther finds it in herself to forgive him. I can kind of see why; he does guard her secret that she is a Jew, and saves her from the harsher soldiers. But I’m not sure they had enough page-time together to really believe they cared for each other like that. We get a lot of scenes between Esther and Ruti, but their relationship is a lot easier to establish, being servant and queen. Despite that Erez becomes Esther’s guard, I don’t think their chemistry is built up enough to believe that Esther truly loves him—a friendship perhaps, but not a romance.
I will say this: in a lesser author’s hands, this would have been a chance to shoehorn a love triangle. Xerxes and Erez hardly ever share a scene together, and the reasons for Esther’s genuine connection to either man are made clear. It would have been immature to turn one of the Bible’s most well-known heroines into a simpering teenage girl whining about which man she loves more. But Esther remains just as a good heroine should: strong and passionate, but still with the uncertain vulnerability of a teenage queen in the most powerful empire of the pre-common-era world.
The setting of the book draws you in quite well too. Although rooted in history, it does feel like a faraway world with the clothes, food, customs, and attitudes between the characters. It goes without saying that the book is well written if the characters are so beguiling and likable, but it’s another layer of delight when the world feels true and real.
If I were to ever tackle the story of Esther, I think I would hesitate, for feeling like I could not be able to top Rebecca Kanner’s telling.