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Cannonball Read IV: Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith

By TylerDFC | Book Reviews | September 21, 2012 | Comments ()


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The image of the baby Jesus lying in a manger, surrounded by livestock, and His parents, Mary and Joseph, is an enduring one in our culture. Most people also know the story of the three wise men, or magi, who followed a star to bring the child gifts. But who were the three wise men? They are barely mentioned in the bible and after visiting Jesus the vanish from the narrative. What if they weren't wise men at all? What if they were murderous thieves on the run from King Herod of Jerusalem and merely stumbled upon the family in a stable in Bethlehem?

This is the clever premise of Unholy Night, Seth Grahame-Smith's third novel. Smith has made a name for himself with the high-concept genre mash-ups Pride & Prejudice & Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. With Unholy Night, Grahame-Smith takes one of the most well known stories in the world and turns it in to an ultra-violent action/adventure thriller. The concept is intriguing, but the execution leaves much to be desired.

Balthazar is a thief. Known as the Antioch Ghost, he has bedeviled the Roman empire and Judea for years and successfully eluded capture. That all changes during one failed heist and he is thrown in Herod's dungeon with two other thieves, Melchyor and Gaspar, to await execution. Through a ruthless subterfuge, the men escape the dungeons and run for the lives. Their paths cross with Mary and Joseph and their newborn son and the atheist Balthazar ends up becoming their protector after witnessing Herod's men brutally murdering the newborn babies in Bethlehem. The six fugitives make a run for Egypt. Incensed with rage at the baby and Balthazar eluding capture, Herod entreats Augustus Caesar to assist in their capture. Caesar sends a young officer, Pontius Pilate, and an army in pursuit. Balthazar, Joseph, Mary, and the rest must learn to trust each other in order to evade the pursuing armies of the world and Balthazar must regain something he lost years ago: his faith.

This is the first book I've read by Grahame-Smith and when I first read the premise for Unholy Night I thought it would be more of a satirical comedy like a Christopher Moore or Terry Pratchett. But Grahame-Smith plays the scenario absolutely straight which is both a strength and a weakness. At it's heart, Unholy Night is the story of Balthazar's redemption. He is a man driven to avenge the death of his young brother at the hands of a Roman Centurion years before and he has bloodily cut a swath through the Roman empire to do it. This is an incredibly bloody and violent narrative. I've read plenty of horror novels and Unholy Night stands shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Stephen King's early works. Balthazar is well skilled in murder, as are his cohorts, Gaspar and Melchyor. Limbs are hacked off, entrails are spilled, locusts eat men alive, violent torture ensues; this is not a story for the faint of heart.

Which is too bad because I think if the violence were toned down the book would be more accessible. There is an interesting story here, but the gore overshadows the moral to the point where it is absolutely obscured. Herod is portrayed as diseased in both his body and mind. He openly defies the God of Abraham and declares war on Him. While God seems to help our heroes occasionally, there is an immense amount of pain and suffering for all of them before they reach the end. I have no idea what Grahame-Smith's religious beliefs are, but I wouldn't be all that surprised to learn he was atheist. This is not a loving and caring God, it's a pissed off vengeful deity that is still barely a match for the evil of powerful men and ancient dark magic. While God seems to give Balthazar super-human strength at a key moment, it is obvious the humans are basically on their own to rescue themselves.

Unholy Night's alternate and dark take on the first Christmas is worth reading, but the moral and narrative are buried under a tidal wave of gore and conflicting tone. The best way to describe it would be as an ultra-violent Raiders of the Lost Ark. In fact there are a couple of scenes in the book that are a direct homage to Raiders which ended up being pretty amusing.

Recommended but you'd better have a strong stomach.


This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it, and find more of TylerDFC's reviews on the group blog.

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the amazon.com affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)




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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • "This is not a loving and caring God, it’s a pissed off vengeful deity
    that is still barely a match for the evil of powerful men and ancient
    dark magic."
    Sooo, in other words the God of Abraham and Moses? A God obsessed with devotion and fealty? A God that demands the sacrifice of your children to prove faith, that will kill an entire nations first-born for the sake of a tiny minority, that will incinerate whole cities because of pee-pee's going in poopy-holes? I think Seth got it exactly right in ensuring that the reader knows that the world of the first century was indeed nasty and brutish, ruled by vengeful and repugnant deities.

  • marya

    I loathe Seth Grahame-Smith. He has become ludicrously successful with his stupid formula: take a mildly amusing what-if scenario, and keep typing until you've reached enough pages to be a reasonable novel length. And he does it badly! So badly! Why am I so angry about this?! Why am I writing such an impassioned comment that no one will read? In conclusion, Seth Grahame-Smith, please stop writing books.

  • Maguita NYC

    "This is not a loving and caring God, it’s a pissed off vengeful deity that is still barely a match for the evil of powerful men and ancient dark magic."
    Basically Graham-Smith was being faithful to the God of the Old Testament in his revisiting of The New Testament.

    I love these kinds of books, the rewriting of history, or the elaborating on supporting characters that history had forgotten while retelling the glory of the protagonist.

    Gore is not an issue if written properly. When good prose can make you smell the blood and entrails spilling out, and takes the reader in the heart of the fight, from the fighter's point of view, I'd be more interested in reading this than if it shrank from the reality of its violent times.

    Good review btw! Hard to translate impressions on re-written (or re-created) storylines.

  • The Wise Men were astrologers.

  • vic

    And possibly Persian priests and/or kings, but definitely astrologers.

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