A Reluctant Queen
This novel should have had all the elements of a success. The author, well known and very experienced, has written several books that are favorites of mine. I often love what she does with words. And the biblical story of Esther has room for plenty of romance and adventure. Yet, even with all of this, A Reluctant Queen fell short somehow. It has its good moments, but something about it just seemed a little too ordinary.
Readers familiar with the biblical tale of Esther can probably recite the basic elements of plot from memory. Persian King Ahasuerus banishes Queen Vashti, but he needs an heir, so his search for a new bride begins. Many young girls from all over the kingdom are brought before him, but the one he chooses is Esther, a beautiful young Jewish woman. Esther made it into consideration because of the actions of her guardian Mordecai, and she did not reveal to the King that she was a Jew. And from here, most of the book focuses on Esther’s time in the palace after her marriage to Ahasuerus and the events leading up to Esther saving her people from destruction. Much of this time is not covered in any detail in the biblical story, so the author had a certain amount of flexibility to weave her story.
At times, the book was quite fun to read. We see Esther’s believable fear over being made to leave the Jewish part of the city, conceal her heritage, and live in a foreign culture. We also get to watch as Esther and Ahasuerus fall in love and start to build a true marriage. Given what happens later in the biblical account, it makes sense to believe that these two would have loved one another. I also found the author’s way of working in history of the time during some of the scenes with the king and his court quite interesting.
However, at times the plot of the book seemed to drag on and on. Esther’s life in the harem was rather cloistered, so one can understand how her days would take on a certain monotony. Still, making the reader feel that doesn’t create a compelling read. In addition, the author works in encounters between Mordecai and Esther, and between various people in the palace that are not only absent from the biblical account of the story, but which also seem a little too modern to fit into the story.
And then there’s the creeping in of a sort of characterization that readers of Regency wallpaper books will recognize. Remember the heroines who take in every stray urchin and engage in impractical Pollyanna-ish do-gooder projects all over the place? That’s what life in the harem does to Esther. She starts off seeming both beautiful and smart, but as the book progresses, she starts befriending the servants and at one point, even organizing the eunuchs. Apparently, if the poor enslaved eunuchs only had snazzy uniforms and a real purpose in life, they’d be so much happier. I had gotten moderately bored at times while reading the book, but this marked the true “jumping the shark” moment for me.
In the end, A Reluctant Queen struck me as a good idea that just needed some polishing up in the execution. A little less modern psychology and do-gooder projects and a little more characterization and story would have made this book wonderful. Instead of the wonderful historical saga which I know this author is capable of writing (see The Road to Avalon and its sequels), we get a biblical historical that lacks heart and is a tad too wallpapery. Not awful, but not one to recommend either.