Many historical fiction authors take on the Big Stories. I took on the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 for my thriller, The Fifth Knight. But when I got offered (in my capacity as a reviewer for the Historical Novel Society) a copy of Seth Grahame-Smith's Unholy Night, I jumped at the chance.
For Grahame-Smith has taken on one of the biggest story of all: the birth of Christ. It’s the birth story from the perspective of one of the Three Wise Men (yes, they of gold, frankincense and myrrh fame), Balthazar.
But Balthazar isn’t a king or a wise man. He’s a hustler and a thief on the run from the might of the Roman Empire and becomes an accidental hero in his defence of the holy family. The story of that defence is the substance of the novel. It’s a breath-taking ride, with a mash-up of historical fact, fiction and fantasy that is Grahame-Smith’s trademark and deeply moving at times.
The real star for me was the evil King Herod. Here the author really lets rip with brilliant results. Like your villains badder than Bad Jack McBad? Then look no further, because Herod ticks every bad box and throws in a few more for good measure.
As regards the holy family themselves, Grahame-Smith portrays Mary and Joseph as real human beings caught up in overwhelming circumstances. That's no mean feat. So many biblical based novels and movies descend into cardboard cut-outs of Mary (particularly) and Joseph because of the weight of religion and history they carry.
As to be expected, there are some zombies, but maybe not enough to satisfy die-hard Grahame-Smith fans.
So did he succeed with the Big Story? For this reviewer, definitely. It was a hugely enjoyable, thrilling read.
Reviewer's Note: I was provided with a free copy of this novel by the Historical Novel Society in exchange for an impartial review. An edited version of this review has been published by the Historical Novel Society in May 2013.
Seth Grahame-Smith, Bantam Press, 2012, £12.99, hb, 410pp, 9780593071106
From the author of the New York Times bestselling Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, comes UNHOLY NIGHT, the next evolution in dark historical revisionism.
They're an iconic part of history's most celebrated birth. But what do we really know about the Three Kings of the Nativity, besides the fact that they followed a star to Bethlehem bearing strange gifts? The Bible has little to say about this enigmatic trio. But leave it to Seth Grahame-Smith, the brilliant and twisted mind behind Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to take a little mystery, bend a little history, and weave an epic tale.
In Grahame-Smith's telling, the so-called "Three Wise Men" are infamous thieves, led by the dark, murderous Balthazar. After a daring escape from Herod's prison, they stumble upon the famous manger and its newborn king. The last thing Balthazar needs is to be slowed down by young Joseph, Mary and their infant. But when Herod's men begin to slaughter the first born in Judea, he has no choice but to help them escape to Egypt.
It's the beginning of an adventure that will see them fight the last magical creatures of the Old Testament; cross paths with biblical figures like Pontius Pilate and John the Baptist; and finally deliver them to Egypt. It may just be the greatest story never told.