Friday, September 27, 2013

Unholy Night

In Seth Grahame-Smith’s Unholy Night, the New York Times best-selling author of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, brings us a twisted retelling of the classic story of the three wise men as only he can tell it.

The thieving Balthazar, a Syrian by birth who is known as the infamous Antioch Ghost, is fleeing Tel Arad on camel, burdened with the spoils of his latest daring heist from Decimus’, the new Rome-dispatched governor, walled compound. Captured and brought before Herod to be executed, the “scourge of Rome” instead pulls off the unlikeliest of escapes (straight out of Mission Impossible) with two other thieves imprisoned in the same cell in Herod’s palace; Melchyor, a Greek and self-described finest swordsman in the empire, and Gaspar, an African who claims his only talent as “being smart enough to partner with the best swordsman in the empire.” After the three thieves sneak away right under the guards noses, Herod rages at Balthazar’s humiliation of him, but that is quickly forgotten for as he looks to the Eastern sky there is a star brighter than any he has ever seen, and now he knows that the muttered prophecies of a Messiah born of a virgin in the Town of Bethlehem, who will topple all the kingdoms of the world including Herod’s has come to pass.

As the three “wise men” arrive in Bethlehem and decide to hide from Herod’s troops in the stable, they come across a young family. As the men startle the young new mother, her husband, Joseph, comes to her protection, only to end up with a black eye from Balthazar and threats of more dire consequences if he doesn’t put down the pitchfork he's holding. Joseph quickly explains his fears that they were Herod’s men, and openly confesses to the reasons for their own planned escape, as well as all the events which lead up to their current situation including Gabriel visiting Mary, Mary becoming pregnant, and his own vision in which Gabriel warned of Herod slaying all newborn males in Bethlehem. The three criminals listen and instead of offering assistance, insult Mary’s honor, hold the young family hostage, and mock Joseph and Mary’s beliefs as a joke.

It is as Balthazar and his companions are leaving Bethlehem, almost home free from Herod’s grasp, that they hear the first screams. A woman’s scream and then another. Dare they believe the carpenter’s crazy ramblings? Would Herod be insane enough to murder innocent infants? It is at that moment that Balthazar’s life is changed, for faced with escape, he decides to go back and help, and the horror he witnesses urges him to fight, to kill them all. The fates are decided by his stroke of conscience, and hence starts a long arduous journey towards safety for the three wise men who become the reluctant guides and protectors of Joseph, Mary and child.

This was a truly fun read. The book was quirky, funny, outrageous and brilliant. Now if the mere thought of altering a Bible story is sacrilegious to you, then please don’t even open this book, because there is plenty to be outraged by. If on the other hand, you can take it for what it is, a very original work of fiction, then go for it because the book truly has something for everyone one; action, humor, and even a little romance.

As I said, the action is plentiful, including some great battle scenes with plenty of swordplay, worthy of a Bond-movie. By far the best aspect of the book though is the character development of Balthazar. The author wonderfully fleshes out Balthazar’s character, and gives him enough muscle, sinew and heart through his wit, humor and backstory to humanize him and avoid painting him as black or white, or an all good or all evil caricature. The backstory involving his baby brother is especially effective in helping build Balthazar’s slow progression from criminal into a sympathetic character. In fact, over the span of the book the reader can slowly see his moral awakening leading to his ultimate role of hero by the end of the book.

Grahame-Smith once again manages to bend history seamlessly to his will in order to fashion an epic tale; every page of which is enthralling and exciting.