I am a big Seth Grahame-Smith fan. As I described him in NoveList, "Readers love that they can open a Grahame-Smith novel and revisit a beloved character in a new light. The stories may be outrageous, but the tongue-in-cheek humor and the obvious respect the author shows toward his source material makes for a hugely entertaining and compelling read."
Of course he came to national attention with the fun and entertaining Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but in his newest novel, Unholy Night, Grahame-Smith takes the story of Jesus' birth and tells it through the eyes of Balthazar, a Middle Eastern, good hearted thief.
Yes, all the key info from the Bible is here, and as you read you enjoy getting to the parts you know, but that is just the frame. What Grahame-Smith has done in Unholy Night is to write a historical novel about the violent and difficult times and political situation in the year that Christ was born. Class issues, the Roman invasion, King Herod, and the difficulties of living in the desert are all addressed here.
This is also a character centered story, focusing on Balthazar, his motivations, his faults, and his ultimate redemption. Most readers will enjoy this book for his story more than for the Jesus angle. You know what happens to Jesus. We know Balthazar will keep Herod from killing the baby come what may. There is no suspense in the traditional sense; although I should note, that Grahame-Smith did manage to make my heart race and anxiety level rise even though I knew the outcome.
The point of view switches occasionally to King Herod who could not be more villainous. He is evil, selfish, and hideously disfigured. As bad guys go, he is up there with some of my all-time favorites. Readers who love a good villain, would like this book.
This novel is filled with blood, death, fighting, ambushes, defections, revenge, and redemption. There are sword fights, camel chase scenes, and a brief appearance by zombies (a scene which I later learned does happen in the Bible; as a non-Christian, I had some catching up to do).
Everything you could ever want in a character-centered, historical adventure is here. There is also an overall "wink and nod" sense of humor at play throughout. We are all in on the joke, but somehow, Grahame-Smith rises above and still manages to create an original and compelling tale from his own imagination.
I want to end with a comment about who may NOT like this book. Very religious Christians may find this book too irreverent for their tastes. Do not automatically give this to someone looking for Bible inspired stories based on subject matches. You would need to discuss the appeal as outlined here in a bit more detail first.
Three Words That Describe This Book: known characters/new angle, adventure, humor
Readalikes: There are many novels which take a Biblical story and create a similar "behind the scenes" novel which shed more light on the life and times of the people in the religious text. Like Unholy Night these novels also have a slightly irreverent, but still respectful, of humor. Some of the very best include:
- The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A.J. Jacobs (nonfiction). My review is here.
- The Preservationist by Daivd Maine (fiction)
- Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore (fiction)
- Actually, anything by Christopher Moore makes a good readalike for anything by Seth Grahame-Smith.
This novel is also reminiscent of another story of a kind hearted thief in a historical setting, The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti. My review is here.
Finally, I would suggest George MacDonald Fraser's classic novels featuring the "incomparable and hilarious novels featuring the lovable rogue, soldier, cheat, and coward: Harry Paget Flashman."