Review: The Seventh Handmaiden

The Seventh Handmaiden

by Judith Pransky

Green Bean Books

Category: Middle Grade
Reviewer: Leah Cypess

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The Seventh Handmaiden by Judith Pransky is a middle grade work of historical fiction. Set in the Persian Empire, the book follows a young slave girl, Darya, with a mysterious past. Eventually Darya is assigned to the royal palace, where she becomes embroiled in the intrigue surrounding the king's search for a new queen... and, eventually, in that queen's confrontation with the king's minister, Haman.

This unique and fascinating book blends Darya's life with the Purim story. The connection between the two does not become clear until the middle of the book, but the characterization of Darya and the whirlwind ups and downs of her life make compelling reading even without the Purim tie-in. Historical details about the Persian Empire are woven into the highly readable story. An afterword helps separate facts from fiction, and also explains some of the choices the author made in interpreting the historical record.

Once Darya enters service in the palace and becomes Esther's "seventh handmaiden," her life becomes intertwined with the tale of Esther, Mordechai, and Haman, adding a unique twist to the Purim story for readers already familiar with it. At the same time, the book does not assume any knowledge on the part of the reader -- Darya's story holds up on its own.

This unusual, finely-crafted book meets the criteria for consideration for a Sydney Taylor Award. Its mix of historical fiction, Biblical retelling, and adventure make it a rare find in the Jewish middle grade genre. It will enrich the story of Purim for those who know it, and serve as an intriguing introduction for those who don't. In addition, Darya's connection to the Judeans in the book turns out to be central to the story, in a way that makes this an unequivocally Jewish book.

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Leah Cypess is the author of several mainstream books, including the forthcoming middle-grade novel, THORNWOOD, coming in April 2021 from Delacorte/Random House. Leah also writes Judaica books under the pen name "Leah Sokol." Her most recent Judaica book, YOU CHOOSE: THE SPANISH PLOT, was a PJ Our Way selection in February 2021.