Sunday, July 7, 2013

Unholy Night, Seth Grahame-Smith

This book is the tale of the three wise men, as imagined by the author of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (which was excellent, BTW - way better than the movie.).

As this book involves some religious figures, and that can be a touchy subject, I should start with 2 disclaimers:

1)      If you are hyper religious, and find any fictional portrayal of Christian figures as bad or blasphemous, don't bother with this book or review. You'll just be unhappy.

2)      If you are hyper non-religious, and don't see the point in discussing religion you may want to stop reading this review here. You may enjoy the book as a straight work of fiction, but I am going to go into thoughts on the religion it touches on, which you may not enjoy.

OK, so, the book is not about Jesus. Or Mary and Joseph. Well, maybe the holy couple a little. Sure, the holy family is in it, but it's not about them. The main character is a thief named Balthazar. He's more the kind of guy who might follow disclaimer number 2. He's murdered, he's stolen, he has no remorse, and certainly no faith. We meet him as he's riding across the desert attempting to evade the Judean soldiers chasing him. He's stolen from the governor of a nearby town.

He doesn't make it. 

Instead he's captured and taken to King Herod. Now, let me side track and talk about Herod for a second. Now, if you remember your Bible verse, you know Herod is not a good person. He's not a benevolent ruler. This book takes it to a whole new level. He is a villain of…well, biblical proportions. Here is a withered old man who is firmly off his rocker. He thinks he has leprosy, but it's syphilis. But his insanity doesn't give him a pass, or any sympathy, since he got syphilis from raping a 12 year old. Oh, it's his favorite past time, raping. Now, it should be pointed out that this was a different time. Mary is depicted as only 15, and that's probably fairly accurate. That's not to say the rape part is ok. Never. But the age is what I'm talking about. Presumably, the life span was much shorter, so once you were fertile, you could bear children, and therefore an adult. Still, it's icky and it's meant to be. In one scene, Herod rapes another young girl, telling himself she's supposed to resist and really loves it. Then he kills her in a fit of rage, of which she had no part in. Then, he has sex with her body. Yeah. Feel free to take a moment to comprehend how repulsive he is. He's egomaniacal, unbalanced, and violent. Not a great combo.

So, back to Balthazar. He's arrested and taken to this disgusting little man and sentenced to death. He escapes by attacking wise men and stealing their clothes. He adds two more thieves on death row to his entourage simply because they're in the cell with him. The wise men he attacks go to death in his place. I found this the most repulsive scene with Balthazar. First, I told myself, they'd figure it out before the executioner chopped the wrong heads off. Then, I told myself they were Herod's advisors so they were probably bad guys anyway. But the truth is, they were innocent. They weren't the notorious thieves and murderers they were killed for being.

And really, I think that's the point. We're not supposed to really like him at this point. For one, he's self deluded. Even before this, when you read how he ended up running for his life, he takes very little responsibility for himself. Or I should say, he takes false responsibility. He says, "oh, it's my fault," and then explains it by blaming the actions of others. His responsibility is in trusting those others. So, he's still passing the buck. When the wise men die in his place, it's not that he doesn't care about that, though he doesn't really. He never considered it. He expected they'd figure it out. But the idea that they didn't doesn't really bother him. 

I'll come back to why, but let me keep laying this out for you. So, he and his companions are on the run again, and head to a small town called Bethlehem. There, they head to a stable to hide their camels  and what do they find?!? Gasp! A woman and a baby! Never saw that one coming did you? The "wise men" threaten Joseph and Mary to keep them quiet despite assurances the holy family is hiding from Herod's men too, and the thieves leave in the morning.

Except that's the morning Herod's men come to kill all the male children. Balthazar can't handle that and we see the first of the good in him. What there is of it. The wise men go back and kill some of the soldiers, saving the children they can. They save one in particular. Bet you can't guess which. Surprise! It was the baby from the stable!

The rest is a harrowing flight across the desert to Egypt fighting first Herod's army, then the Roman army. Miracles included.

So, now that you have an idea what I'm talking about, let's get into the meat. First, Balthazar has an abiding hatred for God, or the idea of God, since he doesn't believe in him, and doesn't even like to hear about him. He doesn't want Mary muttering scriptures to Jesus as bedtime stories. He doesn't want to acknowledge any of the miracles he sees. Or the visions of angels. The reason is he lost someone when he was young and can't see how God could let that happen. He also blames the Romans for his loss, which is why he doesn't care if Roman lives are lost, guilty or innocent.

One of my favorite parts about his disbelief is his opinion of Mary's story. I think people tend to romanticize the Virgin Birth and forget how dangerous her story was at the time. For the purposes of this review, let's just assume the events in the Bible happened, but we'll try to stay away from questions of divinity. For an unwed woman to say that she was pregnant could lead to her death. D-E-A-T-H. If Joseph claimed it as his, they could be shunned for premarital sex. Even Joseph entertains the idea that Mary is just nuts. And that's probably the most logical option. She was raped, her mind broke, and now she has to explain a pregnancy. So, it's divine. Balthazar, cynic that he is, figures she's just loose, and Joseph a cuckold.

I thought that was really well done, too: portraying the holy couple as human; I love stories that do that. Joseph as a scared and doubt filled new husband. In love, but not sure he's up for taking care of either a crazy woman or the messiah. Mary as a young, inexperienced new wife and mother. Burdened with the idea of raising her savior. And frankly, she's a bit of a judgmental bitch at times too. They both are. Despite saving them, despite depending on them for her survival and the survival of her child, Mary continually judges the thieves as sinners and terrible men. Even when their "sins" are in her service and save her ungrateful ass. 

Overall I was glad the author didn't romanticize the time - Herod wasn't the only brutal figure. I think people tend to think about it as a time when people were...holier. Were true to their word. That kind of thing. They forget women were possessions, slaves abounded, children could be raped, there was little/no justice for the weak and the poor. Only the powerful could ask for justice. The whole book shows the brutality and...helplessness of the time. The idea of the elite Romans fat and happy - and corrupt - while the rest of the empire scrapes by. Jews, hated and persecuted wherever they go. Balthazar is from Antioch, Syria, and is the perfect example of this. When the Romans take over Antioch, the native Syrians are relegated to the slums. While thievery is harshly punished, its the only option for many Syrians. That, or dangerous jobs in the mines, where Balthazar's father was crushed. 

Another decision I really appreciated was to not have Balthazar convert. They all survive the flight to Egypt - even the other 2 wise men who betray the fugitives. And though Balthazar lives to old age, marries and has children of his own, follows Jesus' life and what he teaches. But doesn't actually "follow his teachings;" he doesn't convert. In fact, he doesn't seem to change much at all. When his wife dies, he fulfills her desire to burn Rome to the ground, never giving much thought to the families who live in the buildings that burn, or the shops, of if someone dies in the blaze. They're just Romans after all. 

The book raises questions of faith, of why God lets bad things happen. I think the answer (as far as the book goes, beyond that, you'll have to judge for yourself) is sometimes they have to happen to put you in the place you need to be. Had Balthazar's life been easier, he would not have had the skills necessary to get the holy family to safety. I think the message of the book is about acceptance. Accepting others. Not judging them. Because you don't know what they've gone through, and you don't know why. The thing you judge them for today may be the thing you need them for tomorrow. 

Unholy Night, Seth Grahame-Smith

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