By: Joan Wolf
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
About the book:
You've read it as a biblical tale of courage. Experience it anew as a heart-stirring love story.
She was a simple girl faced with an impossible choice. He was a magnificent king with a lonely heart.
Their love was the divine surprise that changed the course of history.
The beloved story of Esther springs to fresh life in this inspired novel that vibrates with mystery, intrigue, and romance.
The story of Esther is one of the most compelling, inspiring stories in the Old Testament. The tale of a young, ordinary Jewish girl who rises to become a Queen, and subsequently the savior of her people, is rich with dramatic – and romantic, if you’re a die-hard romantic like myself – possibilities. In A Reluctant Queen, author Joan Wolf attempts to bring a fresh take to the idea of a love story between Esther and her king. Wolf introduces Esther while she’s still living with Mordecai, and follows her through her culture shock introduction to the royal harem and the beauty regimens that prepared her for her introduction to the king, whose favor put her in a position to change the fate of her people.
Biblical fiction can be a tricky genre. What I look for in biblical fiction is a firm grounding in scripture that expands on what is known, and breathes fresh life into “bare bones” of the characters we meet on the page, reminding the reader that they were once flesh-and-blood humans like ourselves. A Reluctant Queen falls short in that regard, serving as more of a rewritten than retold version of the Esther story, with several unaccountable alterations to the scriptural basis for Esther’s story that robs the tale of a great portion of its dramatic impact.
To begin with, Esther is referred to as Esther, and not Hadassah (her Jewish name) from the start of the novel. Wolf also reinvents Esther’s parentage, asserting that while her mother was Jewish, her father was a Persian cavalryman, a possibility contradicted by Esther 2:15, which states that her father was Abihail, Mordecai’s uncle and therefore a Jew. By making Esther half Persian - notwithstanding the fact that she would be considered Jewish since that is transferred through the mother’s line - the impact of her status as a hidden Jewess in the king’s court is dramatically lessened. Mordecai is also transformed from Esther’s kindly cousin into a manipulative, almost conniving uncle, which forcibly strikes me as a complete misreading of his character and role in Esther’s story. In A Reluctant Queen, when Queen Vashti is deposed, a “competition” to win the king’s favor is established. Mordecai, concerned that the king’s closest friend Haman is an Edomite (a long-standing enemy of the Jewish people), decides to take pre-emptive action and enter Esther in the competition to become Queen. Should she win, she would then gain the king’s ear and could serve as an undercover advocate for the Jewish people. There are major problems with this plot twist, though, not the least of which is the fact that according to the scriptures, Esther had no choice in the matter – she was “taken to the king’s palace” (Esther 2:8) well prior to Haman’s elevation to a position of power in the Persian government. Having Esther’s closest family member essentially guilt trip her into seeking the king’s favor – well prior to anything actually threatening the Jewish people in the novel – screams of paranoia and unnecessary manipulation, distasteful qualities that negatively alter the tone and impact Esther’s rise to favor in the palace has in the biblical text.
Speaking of Haman, he is constantly referred to throughout the novel as an Edomite or “the Palestinian,” and he has a severe inferiority complex based on relatives of the king resenting his position of favor. Wolf also gives Haman a distractingly unhealthy obsession with receiving and maintaining the king’s favor, positing that simple jealousy over the king’s marriage and the later favor bestowed on Mordecai for uncovering an assassination plot are the reasons for his attack against the Jewish people as a whole. In scripture, Haman is referred to as “the Agagite” (Esther 3:1), likely denoting him as a descendant of Agag, king of the Amaleks (1 Samuel 15:20). The Amalekites, specifically, are long-standing enemies of the Jews, and in Deuteronomy 25:19, the Lord instructs Israel to “blot out the memory of Amalek,” setting the stage for long-standing enmity between the two groups, a richly dramatic possibility that remains sadly revised and glossed over in A Reluctant Queen. The decision to make Haman’s driving motivation for hatred toward the Jews jealousy over the loss of the king’s favor denigrates the historical potency of the Jewish/Amalek conflict in scripture and reduces Haman to a sniveling, misunderstood mess of a character instead of the villain of the piece.
The king in question is Ahasuerus in Wolf’s novel – more commonly referred to as Xerxes in the Bible and historical record. Inexplicably A Reluctant Queen chooses to ignore generally accepted record that Ahasuerus and Xerxes were, in fact, the same individual, instead placing the crown on a fictional Ahasuerus’s head and making Xerxes his younger brother. In the Author’s Note it’s implied that the king in scripture isn’t admirable enough to be a romantic hero; however, I would argue that this alteration to the historical record unnecessarily muddies the storyline. Enough is left unknown about Xerxes in the scriptures that inventing a brother isn’t required. I also question the believability of a king in Ahasuerus’s position allowing his wife to largely dismantle his harem because he’s tired of the drama that goes along with it. On the plus side, the Ahasuerus of the novel is an ideal romantic hero – it’s easy to see how Esther can’t help but fall in love with her husband.
The character of Esther is nicely drawn in this novel. Wolf succeeds in letting us see her human frailty – the fear at losing her home and being thrust into a wholly foreign lifestyle is compellingly portrayed. I really enjoyed Esther’s compassionate heart and her interactions with the servants who eventually become close friends and allies. As a humble outsider, unused to the constraints of court life, it’s easy to imagine how mind-blowing the rules imposed on eunuchs and harem girls would appear to the uninitiated. I do wish that less time had been devoted to Esther’s angst over concealing her Jewish identity from Ahasuerus, instead of cutting pivotal plot elements, such as her fasting from three days to one and only a single banquet with Ahasuerus and Haman instead of two. Esther’s role in scripture and Jewish history is an amazing one, and while I appreciate some exploration of her understandable fear at stepping out in faith to save her people, I wish there’d been a greater adherence to the actual account of events that led Esther to fulfill her destiny “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). The peril faced by the Jews in the Book of Esther is drastically reduced in the novel, somewhat minimizing Esther’s remarkable actions – instead of a decree allowing Jews to defend themselves (Esther 8:11), with risks taken and costs exacted, A Reluctant Queen ties everything up with a neat bow, handily canceling out the peril faced by Esther & her people.
A Reluctant Queen is a fast-paced novel, with a bit too much reliance on “padding” or wholesale rewriting the biblical framework within which it purports Esther’s love story to occur. I enjoyed Wolf’s fleshed-out vision of Esther the woman, caught up in events wildly out of her control. I also think it was a wise call to compress the timeline of scriptural events (though that does raise the question of why some biblical events were omitted in favor of fictional padding). Esther is an engaging character, and the fictional Ahasuerus honorable and swoon-worthy. The elements of a love story are there, but it’s not necessary to sacrifice panoramic drama and intrigue that make Esther’s story so memorable. I really wanted to love this novel, but this reimagining of Esther’s story would benefit from a greater reliance on the source material. Occasionally cumbersome prose and stilted dialogue slows the narrative’s pace, and with a setting that feels like a generic historical, instead of Persian-specific, detracts from full immersion in the storyline. But the genesis of a fascinating love story is found within A Reluctant Queen’s pages, and with a tighter focus and a solidly established framework from the biblical text, Wolf’s next foray into biblical fiction could be a satisfying addition to the genre.
Thanks to Litfuse for the review opportunity.