Seth Grahame-Smith is like the world’s most deranged history teacher — you can’t trust anything you learn from him, but you’ll never forget it, either. He kicked off the mash-up genre by besieging Jane Austen’s British countryside with hordes of undead in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and perfected it by pitting our 16th president against Confederate bloodsuckers in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. His latest novel, Unholy Night, uses the birth of Jesus as the backdrop for a fantasy action-adventure akin to fusing Game of Thrones with the Gospel of Luke.
There are many mash-ups out there, but most work only as spoof. Grahame-Smith takes his history seriously, using it to add texture and realism before releasing the craziness. Here his main character, Balthazar, one of the trio we now know as the three kings, is a sort of New Testament John Dillinger, a well-known murderous thief who joins with fellow scoundrels Melchyor and Gaspar to escape Herod, the pus-oozing Judean tyrant who wants their heads. Herod also wants to slay every newborn male in the region, which is how the fugitives align themselves with Mary and Joseph, naive new parents whose infant somehow tempers the ruthlessness of the thieves.
After establishing his turn-of-A.D. bona fides, Grahame-Smith bids history adieu, with the nativity gang pursued at various points by a black-magic sorcerer, a young Pontius Pilate’s Roman legion, and a mob of Egyptian zombies. The unhinged imagination is fun, but it’s Grahame-Smith’s depiction of sacred figures as flawed humans that makes the book feel like a secret account of events that have been sanitized by legend. It’s risky to turn a holy birth into a bloody sword-and-sandal yarn, but if you can forgive that, I bet you-know-who would. A