Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith
Published by Transworld/Bantam Press, November 2012 (Review copy received.)
ISBN: 978 805 9307 1106
Review by Mark Yon
It’s been a busy year for Seth. The film of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, based on his novel and screenplay hasn’t been a total success, it must be said, although I thought its audacious novel version was better than I thought it was going to be.
As we approach Christmas 2012 (It’s really not that far away!), the ever-so-busy author turns his trademark mash-up style to the Nativity. The book tells of the ‘real’ story of the three Kings of the Magi. Led by Balthazar, it seems that, at least according to Seth, these enigmatic heralds of the birth of Jesus are not quite the wise old men scriptures would have us believe.
Balthazar is the Antioch Ghost, an Errol Flynn type thief whose latest escapade (stealing from the local Roman governor, Decimus Petronius Verres) has led to a chase across the Arabian Desert, his capture by the Judean militia and being taken to Bethlehem to meet his nemesis, King Herod.
Whilst in jail Balthazar meets African Gaspar and Greek Melchyor. The three of them escape and whilst in hiding meet Mary, Joseph and their baby. Together they then try to escape Jerusalem and the mass killing of infants that Herod has decreed. Heading into the desert, they meet a young John the Baptist. Trying to escape to safety in Egypt, they are followed by Pontius Pilate and a variety of other people that mean them unwell….
At first the idea of a Fantasy based Nativity story sounds quite preposterous. Yet, if you take away most of the religious connotations, it does make quite an exciting adventure tale. The discovery of the manger is not because the Three Kings followed a star (although there is one of great luminosity over Bethlehem in this tale, heralding the Messiah), but rather because they accidentally came across it whilst attempting a jailbreak. The ‘wise men’ the Bible would have us believe in are, in fact, petty thieves who spend most of their time trying to get out of trouble, rather than the benefactors of gifts to the Messiah.
And with genocide, Roman brutality, despotic leaders and prophetic predictions, there’s plenty to work with. The story comes across as fairly well written, with enough to give an impression of the times without being overburdened with paragraphs of unnecessary detail. Although the dialogue is relentlessly contemporary, the tone is generally appropriate and gives the impression of factual truth.
On the plus side for Fantasy fans, there are many tropes that they will recognise and appreciate. It has to be said that Unholy Night is quite violent. Given the chance, Seth doesn’t miss the opportunity to give lengthy details of torture and violent means of death and there are some quite icky moments, with people cooked alive, limbs hacked, heads removed and killings a-plenty in the various skirmishes made across Antioch.
As for the characters, Balthazar is the most sympathetic, a vengeance-fighter with a difficult past and yet some morals, whereas Herod, a diseased paedophile with a taste for necrophilia, is the most despised. Written in such bold tones, Herod rather reminded me of a combination of Roman Emperor Caligula and the corrupt Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars. Interestingly, Pontius Pilate by comparison is fairly well-regarded, a young up-and-coming Roman soldier trying to do the best in a difficult situation.
There is a supernatural element to this tale which takes it into the realms of Fantasy. The use of a magus, the last of his kind, to track the escapees, leads to some quite odd events, but they are quite exciting. Some readers may find their suspension of disbelief rather strained by some of the events herein, but they are in context of the general plot.
With such a glorified romp through History, not to mention religious matters, I’m sure that some would be horrified by this version of events. However, rather like Monty Python’s Life of Brian, it’s not maliciously inclined towards its targets. It is less sacrilegious than, say, Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff. Instead, rather surprisingly, it is quite respectful to the religious aspects of the story. Mary in particular comes across as a strong heroine, determined to do everything she can to protect her baby. Most of the tale is played fairly straight, although there are moments of comedy that alleviate the grossness. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but the humour it does have balances the story a little more evenly in what otherwise would be a grimly dark narrative.
Imagine a combination of the Nativity with A Game of Thrones and you can pretty much guess where this one goes. Like in the Life of Brian movie, characters like Herod don’t come out of this book too well either, if that helps.
So, if you (or someone you know) fancies reading something this Christmas about Christmas, with a Fantasy feel, this is a pretty good read. It’s not too long, it’s not too elaborate, it’s not too subtle – but it is quite entertaining for a Fantasy fan. Providing that you can cope with its method of dealing with religion, this one is worth a try.
Mark Yon, October/November 2012.