I was thrilled when I saw a fictionalized version of the story of Esther come up as an option to choose from as a Thomas Nelson Publisher book reviewer. I have enjoyed the story as it comes from scripture and also its many versions (One night with King, Veggie Tales to name a couple). A Reluctant Queen by Joan Wolf is a novel based on the book of Esther, but focusing on the love story hidden between the lines of scripture. Wolf exposes traditional Persian practices as a Jewish girl unexpectedly wins the coveted crown of her country.
The start of the novel brings a glimpse into the simple life Esther held before her story 'begins' in Scripture. The thought of her having an idea of a future husband, her coming of age story, her relationship with Mordecai, and the basic principles and practices of her faith. This helps bring the shock and awe aspect as to what it may have been like to suddenly be thrust into the contrast of the Persian culture, rituals, and diet. I appreciated a different take on Esther's arrival at the palace- being a volunteer, perhaps sacrificial lamb of hope to her people as opposed to a victim snatched of the streets of Susa. Scripture does not really say how it occurred, and this was a nontraditional way of looking at it. I don't think it is fully accurate given the response in Esther 4 of Mordecai's revelation that perhaps she had become queen for 'such a time as this.'
The unfolding love story was a magnificent read. I was entranced, eager to find how the love of two very different people could blossom. The side plots of the relationships Esther had with her servants and eunuchs were also intriguing. I feel as though with Wolf's writing I was able to place myself in a time and place and culture of the mighty Persians. Its almost as if you can feel the silk and breathe the air and taste the food. Her writing is clear, concise, and creative. You will not want to put this novel down.
As much as I loved this novel, there were a few issues I had on an academic/Biblical sense. I was utterly confused by the use of Xerxes other name Ahasuerus (different language branch I believe). Once I remembered that in the Bible Ahasuerus and Xerxes were one in the same, it was better. However, for some odd reason the other thought it best to name Ahasuerus' brother Xerxes- which is the traditional name for the king in the Book of Esther. How confusing! While Wolf notably took liberties to fill in the gaps and make the novel a better plot- I feel there were too many taken to make a good story. It is one thing to add details, it is another to change them! First, the idea that once she was taken to the harem, Esther had little to no exposure to her uncle Mordecai in the novel and his seeming unknowing of what was going on. In scripture (Esther 2:11) it states that Mordecai visited her daily, walking back and forth checking on how Esther was and what she was doing. The relationship they had in the beginning of the novel did not continue through the end, and I feel this was a mistake. Also, Mordecai was rewarded instantly for his exposure of the plot to kill the King (he was the one who presented it to the king) in the novel. This happens quite differently in scripture and would not have taken away from the plot or story that Wolf was trying to tell. The honorable reward he receives in scripture was also not mentioned in the novel- and I feel this was a key element in the anger and resentment felt by Haman. Other important items from scripture noticeably missing or changed was the fasting, sackcloth mourning by Mordecai, lack of second banquet, Xerxes very much willful and awareness of the Jewish slaughter, and the way in which Mordecai was promoted.
If this had been an ordinary novel with a love story twisted with intrigue and politics- I would give it 5 stars. But because of its claim to be based on scripture I must only give it 3 for its disregard of true biblical fact.