Seth Grahame-Smith: Unholy Night

Jun 22, 2015

Seth Grahame-Smith is an American author who specializes in alt-history novels with fantasy elements. I like some fantasy, I like alt-history (most notably Jo Walton’s currency series starting with Farthing), so why not?

Unholy Night partially fills in the 30 year long gap in the biblical account of Jesus’ life and gives it some juice. The story is told from the perspective of Balthazar, a graverobber, thief and general criminal, who escapes from a prison with the help of two other less-than-stand-up citizens, Gaspar and Melchior. By accident, they run into some crazy couple who had just had a bab,y which they believe to be the son of God.

The group, which later grows by the addition of Balthazar’s past love, is hunted by the Romans and by Herod’s men. The pragmatic thief is enlightened in the process, the baby doesn’t cry, many people die and gazelles look around a lot.

My knowledge of bible is very superficial and I can’t judge, how well the story fits into the common narrative, but what I can say is: it doesn’t fit the time period at all. I don’t doubt the acumen and practicality of societies from the past, but find the cynicism and lack of any faith of the main protagonist hard to believe (for example in contrast with Herod’s view of the world which seems fine). Not just the behavior and motivation of the characters (which is mostly lacking) but also the language betrays the author. There’s no reason for a story taking place two millennia ago to be in contemporary language (no one would understand it), or in equivalent of the author’s language (it didn’t exist at that time anyway), but I believe modern idioms should be avoided as much as possible so that the reader isn’t pulled out of the story by a neologism.

As I’ve already mentioned, the characters are poor. Basically only Balthazar has some backstory and motivation (which doesn’t fit the time period), Joseph is devoted to God and his family, Mary only protects the baby (reasonable), the other two kings are just to be counted, Balthazar’s love is surprisingly independent (but maybe not as much as she would seem in the Middle Ages?), Herod is a run of the mill megalomaniac villain driven by his fear of vulnerability of his physical self, the magus is a simple deus ex machina and doesn’t get any credible backstory etc.

It’s a simple read which might offend some Christians, has weak characters, a haphazard plot and way to many gazelles looking at people.