This is a gripping retelling of the story of Queen Esther, the Jewish commoner who became the queen of Persia, beloved wife of Xerxes.
According to the biblical account, the Hebrews and Amalekites had been enemies since the Exodus, when the Amalekites harassed the Israelites as they passed through Amalekite territory in their flight from Egypt. The Bible says that years later YHWH ordered Saul to wipe out the entire Amalekite people for their failure to honor the requirements of desert hospitality. Saul failed to complete that mission, and the remnant of the Amalekites who were left raised their children to hate the Jews for generations. When one of their descendents, Haman, rose to an exalted position in the court of Xerxes, he took advantage of his position to issue an order to kill all the Jews in the Persian Empire. Their possessions could be seized by whoever would have them. Queen Esther was a Jew. She begged the King for her life and the life of all her people. He granted her request and the Jews of Persia were saved. Haman and his entire family were put to death.
The modern readers is aware that the Amalakite symbol (what we know as the swastika) would continue to be used to persecute Jews even until today. For me that made the tale even more harrowing partly because the enmity of the Israelites and their neighbors, stretching back into prehistory and resulting in millions of lives lost or destroyed, far exceeded the original slight. Echoing that was the description of Xerxes obsession with the destruction of Greece for a similarly ancient grudge, an obsession which destroyed Xerxes instead of Greece. Millions of lives lost or destroyed – on every side – for thousands of years over what amounted to petty grievances!
Contrast that with Esther's behavior. She too was angry at Haman's persecution of her people and she sought cruel revenge, but she limited her revenge to the actual people who killed her family. What is more, through her spirituality she found a way to prevent her anger from corroding her own spirit. She learned to love by focusing on the beloved, by looking out for the welfare of others, and by obedience to the spirit voice within her.
This is both a little romance about a harem girl who falls in love with a king, and a big story about a Queen who, emboldened by her faith, saves her people from a monstrous evil, but can't save the King she loves from destroying his own empire.
The writing itself was just okay. There is too much repetition of words and too many similar descriptions of the palace. The pacing was good and the story was compelling enough to overcome my quibbles over vocabulary.
I loved the story-within-a-story element, with the 20th century Hadassah reading the story written by her ancient ancestor. Overall a good read.