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Saturday, December 24, 2016

UNHOLY NIGHT by Seth Grahame-Smith


Published in 2012 by Hachette Book Group

Seth Grahame-Smith is, perhaps, most famous for his books Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Pride, Prejudice and Zombies, two books that I have never read and probably never will because I care not one wit for vampire or zombie tales. But, this book intrigued me and I am very glad that I read it.

As in the other books I mentioned, Seth Grahame-Smith has a talent to take an existing story and put a twist to it. This book takes the traditional Christmas nativity story and makes this little change: What if the Three Wise Men were actually not three learned scholars but three criminals posing as three learned scholars?

That's it - that's the heart of the book. But, what a twist!

Here is all anyone really knows about the the Three Wise Men from the Biblical account, from Matthew 2, verses 1-12:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." 

A 6th century mosaic of the Three Wise Men in Ravenna, Italy.
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." 

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another path.

They are mentioned in one other verse in which King Herod is angered because the Wise Men do not report back to him and he proceeds with his plan to slaughter all of the male infants in Bethlehem. That's it. The traditional names (Balthazar, Gaspar and Melchyor) are not named. Their actual number of Wise Men is not named. 

This book covers all of these aspects without skipping a beat - so long as you look at things from a certain point of view.

In Unholy Night, Balthazar is a master thief and pickpocket who has no problem killing Herod's soldiers to stay out of jail. But, he is caught and brought to King Herod in Jerusalem for judgment. While awaiting execution he is held with Gaspar and Melchyor, two violent men awaiting execution for a variety of major crimes. Balthazar engineers a chance for a final meeting with three religious scholars in order to set himself right with God, overwhelms them, switches identities with them and escapes into the night towards Bethlehem with some goods that they managed to steal along the way: gold, frankincense and myrrh. 

Of course, they meet up with Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus (the three criminals are looking in the stable for fresh mounts) and it does not go well. However, once Herod's men arrive to start slaughtering the infants these three criminals are moved to rescue this clueless family and the real adventure starts.

This book could have gone wrong on so many levels but, somehow, Grahame-Smith manages to change the story but yet maintain the commitment to the religious aspects of the story. I
t does treat faith and religion seriously. The Christmas Star is there. The virgin birth is there.  There are miracles and struggles with the concepts of faith and forgiveness. And, it does not all get wrapped up in a neat little bow in the end and everyone does not live happily ever after. And, I enjoyed it immensely.

Be warned, this book is often violent and gruesome, like the story that it comes from. Let's face it, if you are telling the story of a diseased old tyrant who orders the murder of babies, it's bound to be gruesome. 

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Unholy Night by Seth Grahame Smith.

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