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The Gilded Chamber: A Novel of Queen Esther

The Gilded Chamber: A Novel of Queen Esther

4.3 20
by Rebecca Kohn

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For centuries her name has been a byword for feminine beauty, guile, and wisdom. This sweeping, meticulously researched novel restores Esther to her full, complex humanity while reanimating the glittering Persian empire in which her story unfolded. Esther comes to that land as a terrified Jewish orphan betrothed to her cousin, a well-connected courtier. She finds a


For centuries her name has been a byword for feminine beauty, guile, and wisdom. This sweeping, meticulously researched novel restores Esther to her full, complex humanity while reanimating the glittering Persian empire in which her story unfolded. Esther comes to that land as a terrified Jewish orphan betrothed to her cousin, a well-connected courtier. She finds a world racked by intrigue and unfathomable hatreds and realizes that the only way to survive is to win the heart of its king. Passionate, suspenseful, and historically authentic, The Gilded Chamber illuminates the dilemma of a woman torn between her heart and her sense of duty, resulting in pure narrative enchantment.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The Gilded Chamber is a world unto itself and one well worth entering." —Margaret George, author of Mary, Called Magdalene

"A triumph of historical imagination and a must-read for lovers—and lovers of Jewish history." —Steven Pressfield, author of Gates of Fire

"Fans of Orson Scott Card’s Sarah and Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent have a new author to follow in Kohn." —Library Journal

"Evocatively and sensuously told." —Booklist

"Evokes Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent in style and Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha in setting." —The Jewish Journal

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
A beloved biblical heroine, Queen Esther is joyfully remembered on the Jewish holiday of Purim for bravely revealing her Jewish heritage and saving her people from destruction. Now debut novelist Kohn probes the details of this cherished tale, and unveils a story both more sinister and more complex than readers of the Book of Esther ever realized.

Kohn's tension-filled prose reflects the dangers of the ancient Persian Empire and describes how a young Esther is brought to her cousin's home after being orphaned. Her intended husband, Mordechai, is charged with her care until she's old enough to wed, but thus far he has hidden his Jewish identity to procure an esteemed position in the king's court. And when Esther is captured to serve as a concubine for the king, Mordechai informs her that she must never let anyone know she's a Jew.

The Gilded Chamber is not just a Jewish story but a human one, as Esther grapples with the need to hide her identity. By refusing to acknowledge her heritage, she helps Mordechai retain his position, improves the lives of the women in the harem, and eventually rises to become the queen. But her silence is emotionally painful to keep, and it becomes indefensible when the evil courtier Haman proposes the killing of the Jewish people. (Summer 2004 Selection)

Publishers Weekly
In this measured, eloquent retelling of Jewish heroine Esther's rise from orphanhood to queen of the Persian empire, Kohn brings psychological nuance and stately elegance to the ancient biblical tale that is the basis for the Jewish holiday of Purim. Narrating in the first person, Esther (born Hadassah) tells how she is forcibly taken from her home to the royal harem of King Xerxes in Babylon. Her uncle Mordechai, a high-ranking treasury official in the king's service, warns her, "Do not reveal your people or your kindred.... Let yourself be known only as Esther, foster daughter of Marduka the Babylonian." The novel is by and large faithful to the biblical account and often quotes from it verbatim. Yet Kohn deftly fills the gaps and resolves the ambiguities in the Book of Esther with creative storytelling and historical research. As Esther recognizes her strengths and responsibilities and learns the ways of the palace, so do we; the oppressive closeness of the harem ("the lingering odors of perfume, food, and lamp oil"), the pervasive abuse, the fragile alliances and deadly schemes all come to life. Kohn's Esther has a will of steel and knows how to manipulate lusty, impetuous Xerxes, but she longs for a simpler life. Her sacrifices are finally rewarded when the king's trusted courtier Haman issues a decree ordering the slaughter of the Jews, and Esther is in a position to be able to save her people. Though the novel's pace slows at times, Kohn paints a convincing, complex picture of Esther, and her descriptions of the palace and its secrets will hold readers spellbound. Agent, Esther Sung. Author tour. (Apr. 2) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In her debut novel, Kohn has rediscovered one of the best-loved women of the Old Testament. According to that book, Esther was orphaned at the age of ten and sent to live with her cousin and betrothed, Mordechai, a treasury official in the Babylonian court of Xerxes. Later abducted and brought to court as a concubine to the king, Esther became a favorite and then a queen-but with much politicking and heartbreak. Kohn's Esther is similar to the one in the Bible: a woman of great beauty, passion, loyalty, and courage who manages to save the Jews from extermination. Without sacrificing any of the biblical story's narrative, the author has fleshed out a world where intrigue, power, politics, and sensuality rule the day. Fans of Orson Scott Card's Sarah and Anita Diamant's The Red Tent have a new author to follow in Kohn.-Jane Baird, Anchorage Municipal Libs., AK Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A debut written in the voice of Esther, the Jewish heroine who became Queen of Persia and saved her people from destruction by the villainous Lord Haman. Esther (considered by rabbinic tradition as one of the four most beautiful women in history) was born to a family of devout Jews, in Babylon, in the fifth century b.c., betrothed early on to her cousin Mordecai, and orphaned at the age of ten. After her parents' death, she was sent to live with Mordecai, a high treasury official serving King Xerxes, in the Persian city of Susa. Mordecai once saved Xerxes' life and enjoys royal favor as a result; nevertheless, he feels obliged to conceal his Judaism and instructs Esther to do the same. When Xerxes' wife, Queen Vashti, defies the king in public, she is banished, and royal agents scour the country to find a maiden to replace her. Esther is abducted, imprisoned in the royal harem, and eventually chosen by Xerxes as his new queen. In the meantime, Xerxes' wicked prime minister, Haman, plots to overcome Mordecai (his rival for the king's favor) by inciting the king to issue a decree ordering the execution of all Jews-beginning with Mordecai. Esther, telling the king that she too is a Jew, protects her people by exposing the treason behind Haman's plots. Eventually, Haman is hanged from the very gallows that had been built for Mordecai, and Esther lives happily ever after as the most honored woman in the realm. Kohn keeps her narrative closely in line with the biblical account but fleshes out the story, offering a deliberately provocative sketch of the daily life of women in the ancient world. A nice retelling that adds a great deal by way of color and perspective-even if not much depth-to afamous and greatly beloved tale. Agent: Esther Sung/Sanford J. Greenburger Associates

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
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Product dimensions:
5.06(w) x 7.73(h) x 0.81(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

I was taken into the king’s palace under the supervision of Hegai, the guardian of the women, the lord of the harem. His understanding of the king’s desire was such that he knew upon sight if a girl would bring pleasure to the royal bedchamber. All who arrived without obvious disease were washed and groomed and displayed before him. He inspected them and determined their fate.Some had known men though they were not married. Some were young but did not display the beauty of youth. Some bore a blemish that would dampen the king’s desire. Some spoke in sour tones. And some were so quarrelsome that even the harem wine would not make them agreeable. Girls such as these were not admitted into the harem, but sent to the army barracks to serve the rough pleasure of the king’s soldiers. There they soon grew old and broken.
While I recovered from the effects of the harem wine, the others had moved on to the hairdressers. Puah washed my hair herself, checking my scalp for nits. She spent an hour combing my tresses with slow and cautious strokes, spreading them in a fan across my back until every strand lay in its place, smooth and shining down to my waist. The old servant had no cosmetics at her disposal, no kohl to rim my eyes or perfume to sweeten my scent. But she massaged my feet with almond oil and rubbed pomegranate juice over my cheeks and lips.A young eunuch appeared in the doorway of the little room and nodded to Puah, who helped me rise. I was yet unsteady on my feet, and clung to her arm as she guided me through the maze of corridors to a large apartment at the far end of the harem.I entered a receiving room, my eyes tearing at the bright light that shone from the numerous bronze ceiling lamps. I lowered my gaze to the floor, covered with carpets of scarlet and blue wool woven into an intricate pattern of rosettes within squares. The fabric on the wall hangings shimmered like stars reflecting on the river at night, but the images they depicted—naked women with heavy breasts and full thighs—made me flush with embarrassment.Puah urged me forward, guiding my steps toward an enormous man who sat on an ornate armchair of ebony inlaid with lapis lazuli and silver. Male attendants stood on either side of him, some holding jeweled daggers. Two boys hovered over him from a perch on a box behind the throne, one with a large fan of woven reeds and the other with a leather fly whisk.He was dressed in royal robes woven from violet silk and silver threads. Every finger on his hands sparkled with a ring of gold or silver. His posture, even sitting, indicated someone who held himself to be of great importance. The expression of his face—a mixture of scorn, disgust, and revulsion—made his great bulk menacing.I stood before this man, not knowing who he was or why I had been summoned to him. My reason still muddled by the wine, I formed an idea in myself that he must be King Xerxes. And so I fell to my knees and bowed my head.“Come forward,” the enormous man ordered. But the pitch of his voice, higher than my own, revealed that he did not have a man’s full vigor. I gazed up at his face: his round, smooth cheek betrayed him as a eunuch despite the tuft of false beard attached to one of his chins.This creature—neither man nor woman—could not be King Xerxes. Yet I understood from his manner and position that he wielded great power in the harem.Puah helped me to my feet. We walked to the edge of the carpet, stopping just short of the platform. I saw by the eunuch’s pursed lips and fearsome stare that I did not please him. I glanced to Puah at my side, hoping for some hint how I might win the eunuch’s favor. But her eyes remained fixed on her feet.“So our wine was not to your liking!” The eunuch’s shrill voice startled me.“I could not support its strength, my lord,” I whispered.“You are from Susa?” So great was the pressure of his enormous weight upon his throat that his words came out as great gasps of sound.“Yes, my lord.” I held back tears for my cousin’s household and all that I had lost that day.“What are your parents?”“I am an orphan, my lord.”“A pretty orphan,” he sighed, appraising me with a stare that made me feel like a goat for sale in the marketplace. He sighed again and leaned toward one of the eunuchs by his side. “Such fair skin and shapely form would tantalize the king’s desire. Bright eyes the color of ripened wheat, and the shape of luscious almonds. And look at the abundant hair. She would have served him well.”The regret in his voice held my heart like the hangman’s noose. I did not want to be an object of the king’s pleasure, but I feared a worse fate if I did not cooperate. “I shall be your obedient servant,” I heard myself promise.The eunuch shifted his great bulk back toward me, his eyebrows lifting in surprise. His sharp eyes rose from the flesh of his face like a crescent moon peeking over a mountain.“What did you say?” he asked.“I shall be your obedient servant,” I repeated, afraid that I had displeased him.“What are you called?” he demanded.“Esther, my lord,” I replied. The name scratched my throat and tore at my tongue as it escaped, like a difficult birth. I no longer heard the word as Mordechai had said it, with love and concern for my safety. I did not hear it as I had introduced myself to the others, with a show of courage. It was the name of someone I did not know.The eunuch’s thick lips went slack and his mouth fell open as if gasping for air. His false beard quivered. He tightened his grip on the arms of his throne.He stared at me for some time. I forced myself to return his gaze as if beholding an object of delight.“Let us inspect her,” the eunuch commanded, breaking his silence after a minute or two. One of his attendants signaled for Puah to remove my robe. The gauzy fabric fell away from my flesh.I stood alone in the shame of my nakedness. I felt Hegai’s eyes upon me but I could not meet his gaze. After some moments of silence, he raised a finger to a young eunuch who stood beside him. Heaving his great bulk out of the chair, he leaned on the youth like a walking stick and approached me. Each step required great effort. He came so close to me that I could feel the heat of his labored breath on my skin. He circled me, examining every inch of my bare flesh. I held myself very still. I imagined that I was a statue of cool white marble.After Hegai looked at my skin, he examined behind my ears and in my mouth. He pressed his nose into the hollow between my arm and shoulder. His massive hands cupped my breasts, as if to feel their weight. Then he signaled that I should be laid on my back. With the help of an attendant, he lowered himself to his knees.Puah draped my robe across my shoulders and chest while a eunuch elevated my hips with a cushion. My legs were spread apart. I was a statue; I felt neither fear nor pain. I closed my eyes and saw my mother.We were walking on the marble pavement below the hanging gardens of the great ziggurat. Everything was in bloom. She closed her arms around me, holding me close to the child she was soon due to deliver. She wept, thanking the One God for my life and my health. The midmorning sun warmed us, and we sat down to share a piece of honey cake. We watched the boats on the River Euphrates float past like clouds. I turned back to my mother and saw a spasm of pain pass over her sweet face. And I knew that her time had come.“No man has known her,” the eunuch Hegai declared, rising to his feet. Puah helped me with my robe, and I sat up. The keeper of the women washed his hands in a basin.“An apartment shall be furnished for her by the evening,” he pronounced. “Attendants shall be provided her as is her due. Whatever her request and her desire, it shall be granted to her.”I bowed to the keeper of the women, trying to find the words to thank him. But my tongue was still thick with the wine and my body shivered in shame for all that his hands had done to me. And so I said nothing as he pronounced me suitable for the king’s pleasure and instructed Puah to attend me until my apartment in the harem was ready.
We returned to the room where Puah had cared for me. She helped me settle on to some large cotton floor cushions and brought me more goat’s milk.“Thank you for your kindness,” I said as I took the familiar bowl. I tried to tell myself that I had only imagined the interlude in the eunuch’s apartment, but I still felt his hands probing me. I longed to bathe, to rub raw my tainted flesh, to be pure again.Puah peered down at me, her large eyes blinking as if she were unsure of what she saw.“Please sit with me,” I begged.She lowered herself onto a cushion by my side and raised her hand to smooth my hair. I welcomed her comforting touch.“You have been spared great suffering,” she observed, tucking some hair behind my ear.“I have not been spared,” I retorted, the words bringing a bitter taste into my mouth.“You would have gone to the soldiers,” Puah revealed, an edge of reproach in her voice. “Women who cannot tolerate the wine always go to the soldiers.”I put the milk aside. My hands shook with fear for what I had escaped.“Your beauty found favor in the eunuch’s eyes,” Puah continued, “but it was something else too.” Her brow furrowed with puzzlement. “Something you said.”“Perhaps he will change his mind,” I worried.“He has bestowed upon you an apartment while you are yet a virgin,” Puah replied. “Never has such an honor been given. If you are obedient to him and work hard to please the king, he will not change his mind.”I kissed Puah’s hand with gratitude. “I cannot remember all that happened after I drank the wine, but I am glad fate brought you to take care of me.”“It was my God, the God of the Jews, who called me to you,” she insisted. “When you became ill, Shaashgaz sent a messenger in search of a maid. I, the lowest of the chamber servants, put myself forward for the task. No one expected you to stay in the harem, and so I was granted permission.”I kissed her hand again. “You cared for me as if I were your own child.”Puah laughed with pleasure. “When I saw you in your illness, I knew you were the child I never had,” she explained. “I thanked the One God for giving me even a few hours to care for you. I prayed for His mercy and begged Him with all my heart to keep you from the soldiers.”“He heard your prayers,” I whispered, my eyes filling with tears.“He heard me,” she agreed, drawing me close. “And now we are bound together for all time.”

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"The Gilded Chamber is a world unto itself and one well worth entering." —Margaret George, author of Mary, Called Magdalene

"A triumph of historical imagination and a must-read for lovers—and lovers of Jewish history." —Steven Pressfield, author of Gates of Fire

"Fans of Orson Scott Card’s Sarah and Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent have a new author to follow in Kohn." —Library Journal

"Evocatively and sensuously told." —Booklist

"Evokes Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent in style and Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha in setting." —The Jewish Journal

Meet the Author

Rebecca Kohn lives in Hanover, New Hampshire, with her husband and daughter. The Gilded Chamber is is her first novel.

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The Gilded Chamber: A Novel of Queen Esther 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I ran across this book doing a search for a book about Queen Esther. This book is based on the true story in the Bible but is fiction. I enjoyed this book so much before I knew it I was finished with the entire book. I looked forward to reading it and it was always hard to put down. Rebecca Kohn tried to imagine what it would be like to be in the kings harem and gave great details of what it could have been like. It shows a new perspective in the very difficult life that Queen Esther endured rather than enjoyed. In a time of many idols Esther stayed true to the one and true God and God rescued her. This book had some things that may be tabu to some. Its not something I would want my 13 year old daughter to read. Not this version of the story.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put this book down, and that hardly ever happens. I would reccomend this book to people who like historical novels and just plain good stories. It is intense and grabs you till the end!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book was well written.Even though I thought it was sexist(in my opinion).I felt like I was actually there.But I think that the women we're treated terribly.I liked the fact that Esther was strong, even though she was not treated that nicely by the king or the eunuchs.I would reccomend it to anyone who likes to read about ancient Persia.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
ProfessorChristopher More than 1 year ago
For a debut novel, The Gilded Chamber is good quality. There is a high level of fidelity to the Biblical Scroll of Esther, and to the historical record. A glaring exception is the early portrayal of Darius as a son of Cyrus the Great, somewhat clarified later in the book, but this point remains muddled. Another questionable item is the dwelling on a Babylonian uprising in which Hadassah's father dies, giving the story a feel of having one foot in the Babylonian Empire and another in the Persian Empire. Some readers will also take umbrage with cousins Esther and Mordechai being intended as lovers, but from a plot point of view, this makes enough dramatic sense to be forgiven. Kohn is more loyal than Anita Diamant to history and the Bible, and her follow-up Seven Days to the Sea is an improvement over her debut, and thus wholly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
emmi331 More than 1 year ago
Those unfamiliar with the Old Testament may vaguely recall Esther as someone important in Jewish history. Esther was a beautiful young Jewish woman taken as a concubine for King Xerxes of Persia. Eventually she became his queen, and was ultimately responsible for saving the lives of thousands of Jews doomed to "ethnic cleansing" at the hands of the king's militia. The feast of Purim continues to be celebrated in honor of Esther's heroism and courage. Author Rebecca Kohn vividly recreates the great palace, life in the harem, and the deadly intrigue surrounding the throne. Esther - clever, resourceful, and compassionate - triumphs over all, faithfully placing her trust in God. A book that is very hard to put aside once begun!
redkitty More than 1 year ago
This was the very interesting story of Esther from the Old Testament. This book isn't about religion and you don't need to be religious to read it. It was a fantastic way to become more informed of a beautiful story in the Bible.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
You will travel back in time and feel as if you are living the life of Queen Esther. A heartfelt and engaging human story. You will not be disappointed.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent book! I found it while shopping, got it home and could not put it down! I loved how the retelling of Ester came alive! I'm Jewish and I always love reading the Megillah at Purim time and booing Hamen! This book is great and I highly recommend it!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book in one day because I enjoyed it so much!! I was eager to learn what was going to happen next for Queen Esther. Before the book, I was unfamiliar with the bible story from The Book of Esther. I will remember the story from the bible because the author added enough to the story to make it memorable and interesting!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book so much.While it is similar to 'Hadassah' One Night With the King,I relished every line until the end. I look for more historical novels from this author.
Guest More than 1 year ago
You open the first page and can never stop reading until the book is finished! I could not put it down!!!! Filled with continous twists and turns of the characters. A MUST read!!!!!! Especially, if you read The Red Tent!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am enriched and strengthened by this wonderful book. Esther is a model for all women as she uses her gifts to endure her life. Her story and the lives of those who care for her will be with me for a long time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This story was beautifully written and I do indeed look forward to Rebecca Kohn's next endeavor. With her fully developed characters, she puts you into the story heart and soul. You will find yourself totally absorbed in the story and will not regret the time spent reading about all the fascinating idiosyncrasies of harem life, and the privileges of royalty. Read it today!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Splendid representation of an ordinary woman who had to accept choices for her - not by her. Ms. Kohn guides us beautifully through Esther's growning maturity and discernment while exiled in an ancient harem where women are only valued for their sexual proclivities. The book treats us all to intimate images of palaces, gorgeous clothes, as well as the fear and brutality suffered simultaneously. Pay your rent, take a break from work as this book is indeed a PAGE TURNER. I so hope that Ms. Kohn in now very busily writing her next novel!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I did not like this book at all. I do not see how anyone can compare this to The Red Tent.