Comic novels that re-tell history from alternative points of view can be a lot of fun if done well, perhaps most notably is the case of the ‘Flashman’ novels by George MacDonald Fraser. In recent years, biblical narratives have provided useful material for several authors; ‘Lamb: The Gospel According To Biff’ by Christopher Moore is one such, and ‘Unholy Night’ by Seth Grahame-Smith is another. Both these novels have a lot in common and pretty much anyone who enjoyed ‘Lamb’ will enjoy ‘Unholy Night’ as well. They’re both very much picaresque tales that mix adventure with humour and, though both play with the New Testament stories we know so well, they both do so respectfully, each of them having a moral core that shows the reader how the life of Christ affected individuals living around him.
‘Unholy Night’ is not a remake of ‘Lamb’, though, and centres around the supposed three wise men, in fact a trio of criminals called Balthazar, Gaspar and Melchyor. The plot includes a number of flashbacks that reveal their history and how they fell into their lives of crime, and, of course, the events that bring them together in one of Herod’s dungeons. Once they manage to escape, in a rather disagreeable way, they then find their lives intertwined with the events we know from the Gospels including, of course, the Nativity. The villain of the piece is Herod, he of the Massacre of the Innocents and a good deal of the book involves Balthazar’s scheme to get Jesus, Mary and Joseph away to safety.
While definitely a criminal and, one with blood on his hands to boot, Balthazar comes across a likeable character, gradually finding a sense of purpose and decency he lacked before. Grahame-Smith doesn’t lay this on as a Christian parable, though, but instead portrays the story as one of self-discovery as Balthazar learns things about himself and changes accordingly. It’s handled economically, through action sequences and dialogue rather than exposition, which helps a lot with the believability of the thing.
Herod is portrayed deliciously evilly, but like all the best villains, he’s relatable, even sympathetic at some level. He’s clearly in a lot of pain, all but eaten alive by some horrible disease he thinks he caught from one of his many women. He sees Balthazar as a bit of a rival, someone who has managed to outwit him at various turns and repeatedly making his life as ruler of Judea more difficult. Likewise, the other two ‘wise men’, Gaspar and Melchyor, though less likeable than Balthazar, are still engaging characters with understandable motives and their fate therefore becomes all the more poignant.
Seth Grahame-Smith has already written two books that have been very well received, ‘Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter’ and ‘Pride And Prejudice And Zombies’. The first has already been filmed, the second is in the process of being filmed and recent reports suggest the rights to filming ‘Unholy Night’ have been secured as well. This probably says as much about the pacing and style of his novels as anything else. In short, a recommended read.
(pub: Bantam Press/Transworld. 348 page hardback. Price: £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-593-07110-6)
check out website: www.transworld-publishers.co.uk