Thursday, May 10, 2012

Unholy Night, by Seth Grahame-Smith

As my long-term readers might remember, about a year ago I reviewed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith and I thought it was awesome. Sure, it was a silly fantasy where pretty much every aspect of Lincoln's life, including his election to the presidency and the American Civil War, somehow came back to vampires. Sure it took some liberties with history, but at the end of the day it was fun. So when I heard that Grahame-Smith had created another book I wasn't excited, but I was definitely intrigued. Upon finishing Unholy Night I actually of am mixed opinions about the book and I'll try to address those as best I can in my review.

Plot-wise Unholy Night explores the question who were the three wise men who brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to baby Jesus? As Grahame-Smith mentions in the book the Bible doesn't even mention their names (and in fact doesn't say how many wise men there were either) and much of what we "know" about them comes from religious myth and tradition accumulated over twenty centuries. In his typical fashion Grahame-Smith turns everything upside down and reveals that Balthazar, one of the so-called wise men, was actually a famous criminal known as the Antioch Ghost. After escaping from King Herod's prison in Jerusalem with fellow cons Gaspar and Melchyor, Balthazar stumbles upon Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus in Bethlehem while looking for a place to hide. Initially Balthazar wants nothing to do with Mary and Joseph and their "Messiah" nonsense, but when Herod's men arrive in Bethlehem and begin killing every male child under two years old Balthazar decides that this just isn't right and agrees to escort Mary and Joseph to the relative safety of Egypt.

I have to admit that I did not initially care for Balthazar as a character. When we meet him he's an amoral thief who will use people to promote his own self-interest and throws them away when he's finished. As a protagonist that's not exactly someone I'm going to be interested in reading about. However what kept me reading was Balthazar's decision to go back and help Mary and Joseph when Herod's men attack Bethlehem. Balthazar himself admits that he could leave them to die and save himself, but letting Herod's men get away with murdering children simply will not do. As the book progresses we learn more about Balthazar's past and what made him become the man he is today, he becomes more fleshed out as a character and we can at least understand Balthazar as a person. Unfortunately I feel like Balthazar is the only well-developed character and as a result the book suffers.

Throughout Unholy Night we meet a small cast of supporting characters who are essential for the plot: Melchyor and Gaspar, the mad King Herod, a young Pontius Pilate, and the magus (more about him in a minute). All of these characters have their own roles to play in the story, but they feel flat compared to Balthazar. We get to see Melchyor as the best swordsman in the Roman Empire, but how did he develop his skills to that level? Especially when he is a small, unassuming man rather than a tall and imposing warrior. Furthermore, why did Gaspar decide to team up with Melchyor? Was it purely from the benefit of being on the side of the greatest swordsman? Or was there something deeper there? I feel like we got some hints to a greater story behind those characters but we get nothing in Unholy Night. As for the magus, he is apparently the last of an order of monks who controlled dark powers that allowed them to rule humanity through their miraculous powers. However the age of miracles has been supplanted by the age of man and caused the thousands-strong brotherhood of magi dwindle to one man, and while we're kind of given an explanation I'm still left wondering how this powerful brotherhood managed to be wiped out. Ultimately the book hints at a lot of stories that I wanted to know more about but I don't think we'll ever get to see. Mainly because the book is about Balthazar and it wraps up Balthazar's story pretty nicely so I don't think we'll be seeing more of these characters.

My final comment on Unholy Night is there's a lot of graphic violence: sword fights, beheadings, people getting tortured, that sort of thing. I didn't really like those parts because I'm not "into" that sort of thing, but I know some people like it. So if you're more squeamish like me, just be aware of that before you start reading.

Ultimately I found Unholy Night to be far more serious in tone than Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter which made for a very different reading experience. If you've liked Grahame-Smith's earlier books you'll probably enjoy this one, just don't expect it to be like his other books. Hopefully this won't be the last book from Grahame-Smith and maybe we'll see if Unholy Night marks a significant change in his overall writing style.


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