Title: Unholy Night
Author: Seth Grahame-Smith
Narrator: Peter Berkrot
Audiobook Length: 9 hours, 50 minutes
Origins: Mine. All mine.
Bottom Line: Clever and entertaining
“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 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.”
Thoughts: On a dark night a long time ago, a child is born to a poor carpenter and his wife. It is a story that is familiar to Christians and non-Christians alike. What is not known is more about the Three Wise Men who greet the newborn king and the subsequent journey of this little family from Bethlehem to Egypt. Famous for his tongue-in-cheek revisions of well-known stories, Seth Grahame-Smith tries his hand at something more ambitious with Unholy Night – his unique vision of the true story of the Three Kings that includes more than just a chance encounter with Joseph, Mary, their newborn son, and other famous biblical figures. Surprisingly reverent, it definitely brings a whole new perspective to this famous tale.
There is something endearing about a scoundrel forced to show his true, highly sympathetic, colors. Balthazar, as envisioned by Mr. Grahame-Smith, follows a long line of such scoundrels, only out for themselves but who eventually show that they are not as mercenary as even they may think. His growth from pure criminal, cagey and intelligent, to a man bent on the protection of the innocent is one of the highlights of the novel. Mr. Grahame-Smith deftly weaves the tale of Balthazar’s formative years with the current one, evoking sympathy and a depth to his character that does not exist without it. Moreover, he is not a stereotypical scoundrel, and readers trying to figure out his next plan of action will be pleasantly surprised by what he does or does not do. A reader might understand his motivations, given his past, but he proves through his unpredictability that he is still not the cliché one might first believe.
The use of magical elements only seems natural given this oft-told tale of miracle and wonder that is the Holy Family. The darker forces at play provide a nice balance to the forces of good that surround the little band of fugitives. Similarly, neither side proves to stretch the imagination beyond belief. If an infant can create water in the desert when it is most needed, then it seems only natural that the bad guys have their own access to darker magicks. In doing so, Mr. Grahame-Smith does not dilute the power of the story in any way but serves to prove its importance as it highlights the depths to which the Romans were willing to go to save themselves from the prophesies surrounding this one infant.
Peter Berkrot has a great voice for the narrative of this particular novel. It is rough, weathered, slightly indignant, and supremely confident – all of which fits Balthazar’s character. He does not try to use a falsetto to indicate the female characters, which is a good thing because Mr. Berkrot does not have the right voice for it. However, he does manage to capture the shrill desperation of King Herod and the firm confidence of Pontius Pilate, as well as the supreme youth of Mary and Joseph. It is not the best audio performance ever, but it is more than sufficient for the story.
With Mr. Grahame-Smith, one never knows what one is going to get. His version of the Three Kings could have been highly irreverent, bordering on blasphemous. Instead, he presents a highly entertaining, creative, what-if scenario that only serves to highlight and revere the miraculous rather than mock them. Balthazar is the confident master criminal forced to question everything he has ever believed as he attempts to make good on his promise to deliver this newborn boy and his parents safely to Egypt. The drama – both magical and ordinary – is very interesting, made more so by the idea that since this is a story not specifically mentioned in the Bible, there is nothing to say that the flight to Egypt did not happen just the way Mr. Grahame-Smith says it does. While not his best revisionist novel, Unholy Night is still an entertaining possibility about the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt.