First, I should point out that although I love Biblical fiction, I'm an atheist. I consider the Bible to be exactly as opI absolutely loved this book.
First, I should point out that although I love Biblical fiction, I'm an atheist. I consider the Bible to be exactly as open to artistic interpretation as any other ancient literary source, such as Egyptian tomb paintings, the Historia Augusta, or the Iliad and the Odyssey. I don't feel that it's wrong or bad to deviate from the specifics of the Biblical inspiration in pursuit of a well-constructed, entertaining story.
A Reluctant Queen certainly succeeds as a well-constructed and entertaining story. In fact, it may be one of the most satisfying Biblical novels I've ever read. That's entirely due to the ambiguous treatment of every one of the characters, which makes their interactions and their journeys feel so much more real and emotionally involving than they might otherwise be if Joan Wolf had stuck religiously (pardon the pun) to only what is contained in the Book of Esther.
In the relatively large canon of Esther fiction, the typical pattern is Esther and Jews = GOOD, Haman = BAD. Occasionally this expected pattern is drawn up in such stark terms that it becomes farcical, impossible to take seriously. Often flimsy reasons are presented for Haman's "badness," or he's turned into a silent-film-melodrama style caricature of a villain, simply because he has to be bad enough to justify his death at the end of the familiar Bible story.
I found Haman's complexity in A Reluctant Queen the most refreshingly stand-out aspect of this novel, and that's out of several refreshing stand-outs that made me enjoy the book so thoroughly. I haven't seen any other reviewers comment on it yet, so I'm just going to come out and say it: Haman is gay. He's in love with Ahasuerus. I don't believe it was ever stated clearly in the novel (I might have glossed over it, if it was) but it was blindingly obvious to me that he was desperately, painfully in love with his king, and hopelessly, too.
That unexpected but welcome angle humanized him in a deep, satisfying way, making his role in the story far more tragic than villainous. I got a little teary-eyed over Haman in the end. His love for Ahasuerus was both genuine and doomed to never be returned; in such a situation, it's easy to see how his bitterness against Esther and her people took root and eventually flourished. This complexity of character makes for an infinitely more satisfying reading experience than "Agagites don't like Jews."
Haman wasn't the only complex character, though. Mordecai, typically represented as unequivocally good in most Esther novels, was much harder to like here. Esther's reasons for loving and protecting him are obvious, but the reader has a harder time getting 100% behind Mordecai. He often makes comments that imply he truly thinks that Jews are unequivocally superior to all other people, and while that was one of the most important messages in the entirety of the Old Testament and much of the New Testament, one group declaring superiority over all others "just because" doesn't sit well with modern sensibilities. Today's reader can't help but feel reserved when it comes to Mordecai.
Ahasuerus is a man who's largely controlled by politics--at first acquiescing to a political marriage to a woman he dislikes, then maintaining a harem because people keep sending him women as gifts, when in reality his preference is for monogamy, but he's so embroiled in politics that it's hard to assert himself against the expectations of so many city-states. One the whole, he is likable, and easy for Esther to fall in love with--another welcome change from typical Esther novels, wherein the great king is kind of a scary monster until Esther "tames" him with whatever wiles the author imagines.
Esther is deeply troubled by the deceptive life she must live, even though it was all Mordecai's idea. She finds ways to bear up under her affliction and to handle her difficult situation, and the great love she feels for the king (and her great guilt at deceiving him.) Her methods are always full of grace, intelligence, sensitivity, and consideration. She's a heroine who is at once self-sacrificing and true to her own needs--a delicate balancing act for any author, but one Joan Wolf pulls off with apparent ease.
The language and dialog of the novel weren't my favorite parts. It was a little "beach-read" for my tastes; I would have loved a deeper exploration of ancient Persian and Jewish customs and culture, and more details of time and place. But this is a minor complaint when set against the truly masterful display of character all throughout the cast, and not enough to deduct even a single star from my rating. I truly enjoyed the book, in spite of its lighter style.
In fact, I'd give it a bonus star for all the clever ways Joan Wolf wove in tidbits of Persian history which have nothing to do with the Biblical account of Esther. Keep an eye out for Cambyses for a fun historical bonus. (Speaking of history and Biblical references, I've always read that Ahasuerus of the book of Esther was not Xerxes, but Artaxerxes--two different guys. Artaxerxes was associated with a certain Cambyses and a certain Darius, although I'm not sure if any scholar is clear on whether that's the same Darius who would have ruled just prior to Esther's accession as Queen of Persia. This is why I find it expedient to take the Bible and inspiration, not as a solid historical reference.)
This was my first Joan Wolf novel, but it won't be my last. I'm eager to check out more of her books. Highly recommended for fans of ancient historical fiction and for open-minded readers of Biblical fiction....more