World War II reimagined by the author of Brookland (2006).
Esther bat Josephus is living the sheltered life of a high-status Khazar girl when the armies of Germania make their first sorties into her country. Because she’s friends with some of the refugees who have resettled in Khazaria, she knows the war in the West isn’t just any conflict; it is, rather, an existential threat to all Jews. Impatient with the response of Khazaria’s leaders—including her own father—Esther is determined to fight. With this goal in mind, she runs away from home to seek the fabled cabalists who can, she believes, turn her into a man. Khazaria is, of course, Barton’s invention. This is not her first foray into alternative history—see also her The Testament of Yves Gudron (2000)—and her worldbuilding is, for the most part, elegant and engaging. There are mechanical horses that, for reasons no one knows, behave just like living horses. There are werewolves. And there’s the wistful wonderfulness of a Jewish state that has protected itself from invaders for 1,000 years. Unfortunately, Barton doesn’t seem to grasp that fantasy is best sustained by a brisk pace. It takes about a quarter of the novel’s length for the heroine to make it to the cabalists’ village, and this isn’t exactly the trek from the Shire to Mordor; it is, rather, a journey of a couple days. Aside from the fact that the trip itself isn’t hugely consequential, there’s also the fact that the reader has plenty of time to consider that Esther’s quest isn’t so much nobly quixotic as it is kind of ridiculous. Slow pacing plagues the rest of the novel, too. It hardly seems fair to spend several pages describing, say, a river crossing when readers are waiting for an army of golems to take on the Nazis.
A thrilling concept rendered dull by slack storytelling.