New Action in Old Revelations in Unholy Night
As Unholy Night opens and we discover the elusive, pick-pocketing Balthazar of the Three Wise Men, the line between religious interpretation and blasphemy begs to be crossed. Seth Grahame-Smith first exploded onto the literary scene with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the more interestingly-titled, rather than well-conceived book that catapulted his stature as classic-novel-mash-up king. After that, he conjured the lost battle between the 16th President and plantation-owner vampires in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The surprisingly witty and in-depth take on slavery as an institution garnered much respect, resulting in high expectations for his newest novel, Unholy Night. It tells the story of the Three Wise Men's presence at the birth of Jesus, and their involvement with smuggling him to Egypt-all to the enhanced tune of amped up violence and skull-crushing action.
Grahame-Smith delves into the "untold" story of the Three Wise Men-only vaguely mentioned in religious text-and makes them his own sword-wielding, antiheros. Balthazar, master of thievery and dubbed the Antioch Ghost, has a large bounty put upon his head by the Judean king Herod, puppet of the Roman Empire. Once he is caught and imprisoned by Herod, he meets his own reluctant saviors, master swordsmen Gaspar and Melchyor. All three escape execution and reside in Bethlehem, only to discover the timid Joseph and Mary and their son. Once they discover orders from Herod to slaughter all the children of the town, the three thieves have little choice but to defend the family, a decision often regretted once the fellowship is formed. They set off for Egypt, and Balthazar's faith is tested to unfathomable limits.
The shine of the book comes through while Balthazar spars words with Joseph and Mary, both of whom believe their new born baby is the son of God. Balthazar, far too pragmatic of a man to believe such nonsense, focuses on doing what is right, which is protecting the innocent peasants and their baby, rather than adhering to the coming messiah.
Other biblical characters find their way into Balthazar's bloody pursuit, including Pontius Pilate and Augustus Caesar. But as the arc of the story unfolds, the concentration is more on the ability to frame a grind house-style action sequence, rather than any revelatory mix-up of events from religious text. As Grahame-Smith ventures into the world of film, with his initial foray including the script for Tim Burton's recent Dark Shadows, the B-movie style of Unholy Night often feels more penned for the screen than for our minds, which is not far from the truth-Grahame-Smith sold the rights for the film even before finishing the book.
Does this matter? With the normally-raised skepticism about the Bible referenced through Balthazar's disbelief in the messiah, Grahame-Smith isn't challenging or praising the original text, but simply diving into an "untold" story as some would maybe like to see it-especially in the day of pulp action and multi-dimensional characters.
For as bold and ambitious Grahame-Smith has proved himself to be, his literary career may be at a precipice. His goal, assumedly, will be to verge into the territory of completely fresh material, as opposed to reworking previous text and ideas. If he does, it will be a trying and telling moment, when his talent, which is ample, will no longer be masked behind other people's work.
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