Jul 2, 2013

[Books] Unholy Night

So when I first read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I was fairly amused by the book and how the author was able to introduce zombies into this classic story. And while zombies continue to rage across mass media these days for some unknown reason, it's nice to see how the Seth Grahame-Smith has continued to expand his range by exploring other story genres.

This book seemed rather interesting at first glance given the fact that we're not playing within some pre-established novel like with the other classics being mashed up with geekier genres. And while the tale of the nativity of Jesus Christ is one known around the world thanks to Christianity, it's not exactly a novel-length epic. And this certainly gave the author a lot more liberty to work with.

And I think this benefited the story a lot. The book still plays on the concept of merging a new story with an older one, but I think the resulting narrative was a lot more thought-out this time around. I wasn't expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did and I think I've gained new respect for this particular author because of that fact.

Synopsis: Unholy Night is an alternate take on the classic nativity story, at least with respect to the mythical three wise men / magi that featured prominently in that tale. The book was written by Seth Grahame-Smith.

The focus of our story is Baltazar, who turns out to be a thief infamously known as "The Ghost of Antioch". He's the scourge of region given his various exploits, particularly targeting Romans and their supporters. Don't confuse him for some type of Robin Hood character - while he does choose his targets well, he's not exactly donating his money to the poor either.

But he is eventually caught by the sickly King Herod, who is suffering from some sort of wasting disease that has left him covered in sores and lesions. He's determined to make a clear example of Baltazar by having him executed in front of as many people as possible. Thus Baltazar meets two other thieves in Herod's cells - Melchyor and Gaspar. All the while a particular start seems to be burning far brighter than the others...

The basic narrative flow of the nativity story had always been pretty simple. Joseph and Mary seek out a place to stay for the night and up in a stable. After giving birth to Jesus, the new parents are visited by three wise men who had been following a star that promised to lead them to the Messiah. Gifts are given, and then we never hear from the wise men again.

In this novel they pretty much just stumble upon Joseph and Mary and one thing leads to another in order to tie their fates together. All the while it feels like they spend most of the book on the run from either Herod's Judean army or from the Romans. Given our protagonists are thieves and fugitives, I suppose this is only natural.

I did enjoy what a rich character Baltazar turned out to be in this depiction. Just because you're the lead in a story doesn't guarantee that you're also a well-developed character. Over the course of the book his backstory is better fleshed out through flashbacks and narrative exchanges between characters until we have a much better context for how he became the man that he is today. He's definitely not a hero or a saint by any measure, but he's certainly an interesting character.

There are a number of other characters in the story but they all sort of pale in Baltazar's relative grandeur. I think the only other character who feels just as "real" would have to be King Herod, and he's still a bit of a caricature when you get down to it. This may or may not be a good thing how Baltazar is the be-all and end-all of this book. If you enjoy his character, then you should enjoy the book. If you don't, well, then you might not like it as much. Everyone else feels like just another supporting character.

I loved how the author tried to introduce elements of the Old Testament God in this story in the form of smaller miracles and strange coincidences that might be attributed by him. We don't exactly get a burning bush but we do get little moments that don't seem strictly possible under normal circumstances. Plus we have a little magic on the side, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The story will not bombard you with religious references or things of that nature. This is a story that happens around the nativity tale and is not strictly a re-telling of that story. And that's part of what makes the book work - it has a strong story of its own and it just so happens to connect to the classic story, thus making those interconnections feel more like Easter Eggs of a sort (pun intended).

Unholy Night is not my typical type of novel to read but is one that I enjoyed a lot, even more than the zombie books. Thus I rate the novel as 4.5 mad locusts swarming our characters out of a possible 5.

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