As usual, I started the (short) book with high expectations: the guys are all assholes, so surely a chapter named after a woman should show us an emphatic and intelligent woman, right? I should have known better by now.
We go back in time a bit (I think); the book is set during the reign of king Asahuesus, who ruled "over an hundred and seven and twenty provinces" "from India even unto Ethiopia" (not bad!), who throws a party, but not before showing his guests "the riches of his glorious kingdom and the honour of his excellent majesty" for a whopping 180 days… and you thought uncle Jim's holiday slideshow was bad; I can't even begin to imagine how dull this must have been. Anyway, after 6 months we finally get the promised party, which by the by is strictly men only - although Vashti, his beautiful wife (or at least wife #1 - the official queen), is allowed to have her own private party for the gals. After 7 days of boozing, the (possibly rather inebriated) king wants to show off his treasure & calls for Vashti: look at the tasty chica I'm porking, hur hur. All in very good taste, I'm sure. Vashti, understandably, refuses to come over to be gloated at by a bunch of drunken lechers. This obviously pisses off good king Asahuesus, as it demeans him in the eyes of his company: if women just start to disobey their owners (sorry: husbands), what will the world come to? Whatever will they think of next? So he writes a decree to all 127 provinces, that man shall be boss in da house. Respect mah authoritah, beeyatch! All the other louts at the party raise a big cheer at this. Exit queen Vashti. (Shit, I'm only in half a page and I already feel embarrassed by proxy.) King A, losing no time, summons "all fair young virgins" throughout the country to get their tasty asses over to da palace pronto so he can choose a new squeeze (sorry: queen). But before they are fit for showing their asse(t)s to the king, they have to undergo a purification ceremony to clean those dirty female bodies, urgh. This, amazingly, takes a whole YEAR: "six months with oil of myrrh, and six months with sweet odours, and with other things for the purifying of the women" (I once more feel obliged to tell you that I am NOT making this up: anything in inverted commas is a direct quote from the bible). Well-marinated & basted, the young Jewish orphan Hadassah, or Esther, is the one finding favour with the king, so she is quickly crowned. When her stepdad, Mordecai, finds out about a conspiracy of two evil chamberlains, who want to kill the king (they're still using that agency then), he tells Esther. She tells her hubby, and the dastardly fiends are duly hanged. Life sure was tough in those days.
A certain Haman is introduced as a new favourite of the king, receiving all kinds of lavish honours and privileges. Mordecai however refuses to bow down before him, which pisses off the power-hungry Haman no end. He finds out Mordecai is a Jew (Esther didn't tell the king about her descent), so he boldly resolves to kill ALL Jews "throughout the whole kingdom", all 127 provinces of it. (He might be overreacting a bit there - touchy touchy!) Approaching the king, he slyly suggests that there is a group of people in the kingdom who hold to other laws & customs - they are a danger to society and should all die. (Now where have I heard that before?) The king immediately and completely agrees (intelligence was never a high feature in biblical stories, sadly), gives Haman 10.000 talents of silver and dispatches letters all through his kingdom ordering the killing of all Jews on a prefixed day, plus the seizure of their belongings - after which he's off for a well-deserved drink with Haman (ruling is hard work). All Jews, upon hearing the bad news, wail & weep, tear their clothes and mourn. Esther, hearing from Mordecai, advises a three-day fast (like that's gonna help!) & resolves to go see her husband (a highly unusual breach of court etiquette; as we saw before, it was officially ordained that women should only visit their masters - sorry, husbands - when called for) to plead for mercy for her people. So, after 3 days, she puts on her prettiest dress & visits the king. Asahuesus is so pleased to see her that he extends his golden sceptre for her to touch the top (ouch, that was a really cheesy one), gallanty promising her anything her little heartywarty desires. She suggests a private banquet (well, she would, after fasting for three days): just her, the king, and Haman. The latter, hearing this, is mighty proud and boasts to his wife: see how far I've come in the world? Personal invitation from king & queen. Now if only that fucking Jew Mordecai would bow down before me! His loving & long-suffering wife smiles and suggests erecting a 50 cubit (about 23 m!) high gallows to hang the dirty Jew. Haman finds this an excellent idea and rushes off to the palace to suggest it to the king.
Meanwhile, the insomniac king, browsing the books of chronicles, reads about the conspiracy against his life which was thwarted by Mordecai. When Haman arrives, the king asks him what should be done about the hero, so favoured by the king. Haman, erroneously assuming (which, as we know from Stephen King, makes an ass out of U and me) the king means him, suggests a royal parade with horses, a crown, fine garments - the lot. Cool, sez the king, let's do that to good ol' Mordecai right now (I'd love to have seen Haman's face at that moment). So Mordecai is publicly honoured (in the middle of the night?), and Haman sneaks off home ashamed, now suddenly (and rightfully) very afraid for his life. But the next day he still has to attend the private banquet, during which Esther reveals all & points him out as the one trying to kill her and all of her people. While the indignant king, bristling with anger at being thus tricked by his favourite, takes a walk in the garden, Haman pleads with Esther - when the king returns, Haman "had fallen upon the bed whereon Esther was". Hm… where exactly was this banquet, in her bleedin bedroom? Anyway, the king suspects a botched rape attempt; conveniently, we've got that newly-built 50 cubit gallows, so Haman is swiftly discarded - and good riddance to you. The king gives "the house of Haman" to Esther, who places Mordecai at the head of it; he also receives the royal ring Asahuesus took back from Haman. They lose no time sending letters everywhere annulling the previous call for genocide (I wonder how you'd feel as a subject about a ruler who pulls off stunts like this - it can't be very flattering), and even entitle all Jews to additional power & riches. Mordecai is allowed to seal the letters himself with his new & powerful ring. Some Jews, just to make certain, slaughter some 500 of their enemies, and I can't help but feel that was a rotten thing to do - after all, they already got freedom & extra riches by royal decree. Why this bloodthirst? So ugly. The king, hearing of the slaughter, asks Esther for advice (he's really not much of a king, isn't he. What a dolt). She suggests a public hanging of Haman's ten sons (hey, we've got this great new gallows...), which is of course immediately and enthusiastically done (the lady, methinks, also suffers from the traditional Jewish vindictiveness… so much for hoping to finally encounter a charismatic or emphatic woman). In the royal city of Shushan (reminding me of Terry Pratchett's Bad Shüshine somehow), some 300 "enemies of the Jews" are slaughtered as well, initiating a frenzied killing spree all across the land culminating in a staggering 75.000 massacred civilians, after which the killers happily relax with a "day of feasting and gladness". (Uhm, remind me again: we got our morality from the bible, yes? And it's not possible to be a good person without this book, right? Yeah, right.) Mordecai writes a letter to his people, declaring this an official annual holiday called Purim, to celebrate the averted danger (and never mind about those 75.800 people who were killed). Esther writes a second letter, confirming this new holiday with royal backup. So after Passover (celebrating the slaughter of all heathen babies in Egypt, remember), we've now got Purim (the massacre of all people that just *might* be tempted to kill us) to add to our list of Kosher Jewish Family Holidays. It's nice to know what you are partying for.