Books

Book 1 of 2017: Unholy Night by Seth Grahame Smith

This 2017, I’m launching a personal project which I named “The Prodigal Reader.” The aim of this project is to halve my TBR pile, if not to completely eradicate it, by the end of the year. I know this will be a very challenging endeavor due to real life commitments and my own terrible mood swings and inherent laziness but I will do my best to keep this up because I want to make sure that there is a purpose to this bibliomania. Besides, I promised to myself that I can’t buy new books while this project is ongoing (exception: Manila International Book Fair week) and you all know how terrible that feels. I will post all the titles of the books which are currently in my TBR pile in a separate post as reference. 

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Now that I got that introduction out of the way, let’s get to the whole point of this post and write about the first book I finished for 2017 and the first book crossed off my TBR pile: Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith. Just a short background, I bought this over a year ago during one of my random strolls through my neighborhood bookstore. It was a random purchase for having stayed too long inside that bookstore which I shall label from now on as “anxiety-induced acquisition.”

Anyway, it is not as if Unholy Night or Seth Grahame-Smith is totally alien to me, though. I know that Seth Grahame-Smith has made a name for himself as a master story-bender with his propensity to take well-loved stories and personalities and put a whole new spin to them – as seen in his widely successful Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire HunterUnholy Night is his third novel and, true to form, this is another interesting retelling of a popular story. The object of his twisted revision? The Christmas Story.

Yep, you read that right. The Christmas Story. The Nativity. The Birth of Jesus. A story that founded a freaking religion of a billion people. Any wrong word, any misstep, any dramatic changes in the dogma on Grahame-Smith’s part and he would have to live the rest of his life being hounded on his doorstep and being cast with eternal scorn by the most ardent believers of the “Faith.” (See The Last Temptation of Christ and Life of Brian for reference.) But who’s to blame, really? It is totally satisfying to subvert, tweak and be blasphemous about something so rigid and established. Even I can relate to that.

To my surprise, Unholy Night is quite respectful of its source material. Here the canon is still intact: Baby Jesus is God (somehow), Mary and Joseph are the same holy people, and the overall transition of events is similar with what we’ve heard from Sunday School and Christian Living classes. But, as what Grahame-Smith probably knows, the devil (oh dear this is unintentional sorry) is in the details and the Bible is a book that does not concern itself much about details. He fills in the blank spaces in the narrative by assuming the perspective of Balthazar of the three wise men fame as his main character.This is a brilliant move in Grahame-Smith’s part since the three wise men of the East are very mysterious characters in the Nativity story (I mean, they just popped out of nowhere searching for a newborn King and then made a hasty exit after they’ve made contact; who wouldn’t be suspicious of that?) and are thus ripe for a new characterization that could bring about a new perspective to a well-worn story.

The twist is that Balthazar and his two other companions, are not three “wise” men, or three kings for that matter; they are three thieves on the run. And Balthazar is no ordinary thief here; he is better known as the “Antioch Ghost,” a legendary thief and criminal who has eluded King Herod and the Roman Empire for many years. The book opens with the seeming capture of the Antioch Ghost by King Herod’s men and his subsequent escape from the dungeons through some cunning and unexpected partnership with fellow prisoners and thieves Gaspar and Melchyor. They decided to spend the night in the small town of Bethlehem where of course, they met the trio of Joseph, Mary and the newborn Baby Jesus. This introduction by Balthazar pretty much sums up how this book departs from the biblical story we all know by heart:

“…Joseph? Mary? My name is Balthazar. This is Gaspar… this is Melchyor. We don’t want to hurt you… we’re just looking for a place to rest. But Joseph? If you don’t put that pitchfork down, I’m going to take it from you and stab you to death in front of your wife and child. Do you understand?”

Fearful of the prophecy that sees him being usurped by a newcomer, King Herod ordered his men to execute all male infants which led the three “wise” men, under the command of Balthazar, to sneak the holy family out of Judea and into Egypt to escape certain death. Thus begin their epic journey filled with dazzling sword-fighting and dark magic, innards spilling out and the dead rising from the grave. There’s also a bit of romance thrown in to complete the over-the-top mix.

I really had a great time with this book because it does not strive to be anything but the (mis)adventures of a rebel turned reluctant hero. True, there is some attempt at philosophizing especially in the exchanges between the very religious Mary and Joseph and Balthazar the non-believer, but it’s not enough to distract from the overall purpose of the book. Sometimes, a simple story and simple characters with a clear goal (like getting from Point A Judea to Point B Egypt) and motivation (“A Roman soldier killed my innocent baby brother and it basically fucked up my life; I want revenge.”) is what one needs from what one reads.

The action scenes are not for the faint of heart for it is filled with a generous amount of gore and blood. Grahame-Smith does not coat his violence with vague words. He lingers in the details of every head and limb hacked off – from the moment the blade slices the skin, and cuts through muscle and sinew before hitting the bone with a crunch. I wince at every description especially those that show the depraved behavior of the vile King Herod.

Ah where do I even begin with King Herod? Seth Grahame-Smith gives no redeeming qualities to King Herod; he is what he is – a disgusting, despicable monster. But I guess that is only a fair characterization since the King Herod from the Bible is not much different anyway; anyone who orders the murder of infants is a disgusting, despicable monster.

On the other hand, I like how Mary and Joseph were depicted in the book; I was actually very fond of them and I was rooting for them every step of the way. Joseph has the  right mix of confusion and resolve (as any new dad must be like) while Mary had a bit more spunk here and the only reason she could not really go all out in the sassiness department is because Grahame-Smith is trying to be more historically accurate with how women are generally raised and treated during that time (re: second class).

Overall, it was an enjoyable read. It was highly entertaining and a true page-turner. This is a perfect start to my reading goals this year and I hope I get to maintain the momentum brought by this beginning.

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