|Title: Unholy Night
Author: Seth Grahame-Smith
Synopsis: They're an iconic part of history's most celebrated birth. But what do we really know about the Three Kings of the Nativity, besides the fact that they followed a star to Bethlehem bearing strange gifts? The Bible has little to say about this enigmatic trio. But leave it to Seth Grahame-Smith, the brilliant and twisted mind behind Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to take a little mystery, bend a little history, and weave an epic tale.
In Grahame-Smith's telling, the so-called "Three Wise Men" are infamous thieves, led by the dark, murderous Balthazar. After a daring escape from Herod's prison, they stumble upon the famous manger and its newborn king. The last thing Balthazar needs is to be slowed down by young Joseph, Mary and their infant. But when Herod's men begin to slaughter the first born in Judea, he has no choice but to help them escape to Egypt.
It's the beginning of an adventure that will see them fight the last magical creatures of the Old Testament; cross paths with biblical figures like Pontius Pilate and John the Baptist; and finally deliver them to Egypt. It may just be the greatest story never told.
Seth Grahame-Smith seems like the kind of person who I would really enjoy people watching with. He’d make up these dark and twisted tales about the people sitting alone at the coffee shop and I would listen with rapt attention (I’m not su e if that says something about him or me). If you’re familiar with his other work (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter) then you know his style. He takes a well-known story and embellishes it with violence and gore. This book is just like those others but in this case the familiar story he reimagines is the story of the Magi. Instead of being three kings or wise men our characters here are three murderous thieves.
The main character is Balthazar who is better known as the Antioch Ghost. He has a reputation around Judea for being a larger than life thief who tends to taunt the authorities including the ruthless and sickly King Herod whose dungeon he lands in after getting captured for stealing. In prison he meets two fellow thieves, Gaspar and Melchyor, and theuy hatch a plan to escape. In their efforts to flee they end up in Bethlehem where they stubble upon the newborn baby Jesus and after witnessing Herod’s soldiers murdering all the male children in town Balthazar commits to leading the holy family to safety in Egypt. The plot was interesting and engrossing and takes rthe readers on an action-packed adventure throughout the ancient Middle East full of subtle references to biblical and historical events and figures.
Balthazar as a an incredible anti-hero. He is sarcastic, gruff, and generally unpleasant to everyone around him. He ends up doing the right thing in the story, albeit for the wrong reasons, though that makes him all the more likable. He takes on this swashbuckling pirate persona making him into a Middle East Robin Hood and even though his morals are pretty dubious you learn through flashbacks that he is much deeper than you originally suspected. I was a huge fan of him and was rooting for him to get what he wanted in the end. But maybe I liked Balthazar so much because the villains of this story were incredibly unlikable. There was the devious and disgusting Herod who was not only vile in his actions but also in his appearance, but also a host of Roman soldiers and admirals that were pursuing the characters on their flight to Egypt.
Perhaps my favorite part of the book was the fight scenes. They made the story feel so much larger than I expected giving it this epic adventure sort of vibe. They were gruesome and gory making me slightly uncomfortable more than once. Often I found myself thinking “that must be an incredible amount of blood! Who’s going to clean that up?” What Seth Grahame-Smith does really well is create incredible images of blood and guts being spilled that you cannot help but feel the horror that the characters are experiencing. This is not a book for the faint of heart.
The cover of the version I read compares it to A Song of Ice and Fire and at times it did feel like the little brother of that series. It was almost trying too hard to emulate it but when it was itself and didn’t think about being like something else it was incredible (thumbs up to you if you can follow my analogy). As the story developed it added elements of political intrigue, family dynamics, and romance that made it feel even more interesting and deep. At one time or another I felt every emotion possible. It was funny, sentimental, suspenseful, and mysterious. However, these changes in tones did sometimes get confusing as there was relatively little segue between them and often it was a little jarring. But probably my biggest criticism is that it was written in a very odd perspective. At times it was third-person omniscient but then we’d switch to knowing one character or another’s thoughts and feelings. Sometimes it would even shift perspective mid paragraph making it hard to keep track of who was being referenced.
On the whole however it was a very enjoyable read. I recommend it to anyone who likes adventure stories, gruesome retellings, or historical fiction set in ancient times. I give it an 8 out of 10
If you’ve read Unholy Night, let me know your thoughts in the comments section. If you haven’t then check it out. It’s a great Christmas read. Merry Christmas and Happy Reading!