23 December 2014
The Ghost of Antioch
Unholy Night, Seth Grahame-Smith
This book opens with a bang with a Syrian thief being chased camel-back across the desert fresh from an exploit to steal treasure from a minor Roman ruler. His name is Balthazar, and he's wanted by the Romans (and everyone else) for his thievery. Finally captured and transported to Herod's palace, he meets two other criminals destined for death, Gaspar and Melchior. It will take all of Balthazar's cunning to free them—but what happens when, during their escape, they take refuge in a cave where a young carpenter, his wife, and their new baby are hiding from Herod's rampage against all boys under age two? Will they leave the child and his family to be slaughtered?
Obviously, this is a revisionist version of the Nativity story, as written by the author of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. It's also an adventure story in which Balthazar, the clever thief known as "the Ghost of Antioch," is the central character; sadly, the other two "wise men" have a strong opening once they are introduced, then fade into the woodwork as the story progresses.
Your tolerance for this tale will depend on whether you can accept a different view of the Nativity story. Grahame-Smith writes a Joseph who is willing to fight for his family, a Mary who is not a sweet silent cipher nursing her babe in holy light, and a "wise man" who is neither perfect nor laudable, but there are certain factors in his past which you slowly discover lead him to make the correct choices. This is not a feel-good story, except in the last few pages which some may find a bit trite; it is, like the days Jesus lived in, full of violence, pride, and unfairness. Battles and torture are both described for what they are, and it is not a clean, pretty place as in a creche scene. However, it is an acceptable, if not outstanding or particularly memorable, retake on a familiar tale.