UNHOLY NIGHT by Seth Grahame-Smith
Grand Central Publishing, 2012, 320 pages, 978-0446563093, Hardcover, $24.99
Unholy Night was my first encounter with Seth Grahame-Smith’s work. He’s better known for his other two books, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (now a major motion picture) and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Both being rather bizarre, supernatural tweaks on familiar historical/literary stories, I had an idea of what to expect with Unholy Night, a re-imagining of the Nativity scene–the story of the Three Wise Men and the birth of Christ. What I didn’t expect was how incredibly well told this story is, or how wonderfully Smith can create a deeply compelling protagonist.
All throughout Judea, many of the old scripture’s prophecies are coming to pass, signaling the birth of the Messiah, the one sent by God to topple all the kingdoms of man. As a bright star shines in the eastern night sky, Herod, king of Judea, realizes that the time of the Messiah’s coming has arrived, and he has sent his armies to Bethlehem to slaughter all of the city’s infant sons. What he doesn’t know is that the Three Wise Men have come to see the birth of the child. Only, they’re not wise men at all, they’re three infamous criminals, recently escaped and led by Balthazar, the Ghost of Antioch. They stumble into the manger for shelter, and in doing so become entangled in the journey to save the young child’s life.
At first I found the premise of the book a bit generic. Christian mythology is something that’s been tackled by literature many times. As a big fan of Christopher Moore’s Lamb, even the story’s twist didn’t strike me as something new. But as I began reading, I discovered that this is an entirely different story with radically new characters and a grim, almost grizzly tone.
As my first offer of warning, for those not fond of violence, stay away from this book. This is first and foremost an action story, one that’s a bit more gruesomely detailed than most. There are very graphic depictions of death, slaughter, and torture. For anyone who prefers much lighter stories, this isn’t the book for you. I say this because these scenes, like the rest of Smith’s description, puts you right into the middle of the action. It’s one of the book’s many strong points. The setting of the scenes paint a clear enough image in the reader’s mind to place you there, but Smith doesn’t slow down the story to linger in description. He tells you where the characters are, and he jumps right back into the action.
Which is another point to make about the boo:, the pacing is fantastic. It has a strong, steady beginning. Nothing happens too fast, and we get a clear sense of who Balthazar is on the surface: a cold, emotionless man, the calculating thief, the distrustful lone wolf. The first fifty pages or so get the reader comfortable with the world and the characters, almost tricking you into thinking this will be a light read. That is, until Herod sends out his armies. When Judean soldiers begin stabbing infants in the stomach with swords, you realize immediately what kind of nightmare the protagonists have fallen into. From there the action never stops, and the stakes only continue to rise as Herod turns to the Roman Empire itself for help in capturing and slaughtering our heroes.
But where Smith truly excels is, unquestionably, with the characters he has written. His portrayal of Herod makes him one of the best villains I’ve read in a while. He’s physically grotesque, callous, sadistic, and menacing through his cunning. He’s absolutely a great character. The other members of the cast are also great, mostly through Smith’s subversion of their usual portrayals. We get to see a young, naive Mary who is brazen and strong. We witness the uncertain side of Joseph, who, for a time, has doubts about his wife, his son, and God’s will. Melchyor and Gaspar are incredible warriors, and we get a glimpse of a young Pontius Pilot, the up-and-coming military leader.
Even so, the greatest character in this book is Balthazar. He is so complex, made up of so many different layers, that you find yourself reading more for his story than anything else. At first he’s the cunning, expert thief stealing from Romans for wealth and survival, but he later becomes a man moved by rage to act for justice, then the unwilling anti-hero, to the man who has lost his faith, and a tragic protagonist. He is all of these things, but Smith writes him in such a way that they don’t feel tacked on, as if Balthazar changes to become what the plot needs. Rather, these personas flow into each other and propel the character forward. Smith gets it right, and he does it so well that, when we learn of Balthazar’s tragic past, I actually cried for him. He is a truly fascinating hero.
Overall, this book was incredible, an absolute page-turner that I could not put down. To anyone looking for a great piece of fiction and a wonderful, albeit very bloody action story, definitely pick up this book.