Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-SmithHappy Epiphany to all!
Unholy Night has a premise that makes a lot of people nervous, if not outright offended. The story of the three wise men visiting the baby Jesus is changed into an action/adventure yarn about a trio of thieves who pass themselves off as wise men to escape execution. They wind up in Bethlehem just as the Christ child is born. They take umbrage with Herod's orders to kill all the children in Bethlehem and start slaughtering all Herod's men. Then the wise men/thieves take the Holy Family under their wing and help them as they flee to Egypt. The story is not exactly what the gospels tell us.
On the other hand, the story is clearly intended as fiction (just look at where it's shelved in book stores and libraries) and the author hasn't tried to boost sales by pretending there is some historical truth to what he's written, a la Dan Brown. I can't fault Unholy Night on those grounds, even though it follows the Dan-Brown method of making fantastic flights of fancy off the story of Jesus. Unholy night isn't revisionism or mockery; it's more of an alternate-reality story where one little twist makes for interesting developments.
The story is also (and this is another example of non-Dan-Brownity) populated with a lot of interesting and well-developed characters. The story focuses on Balthazar, a thief from childhood who has a vendetta against Rome. He's spent his life wandering and thieving and killing with an expertise that's earned him the nickname "The Antioch Ghost." He's a well thought out character and a very interesting person. He's skeptical and brutal and is initially drawn to defend Jesus and his parents mostly for spite of Herod (who tried to execute him) and Rome. But there's also something else motivating him. As his history is revealed, his motivations become clear. The other characters, including Joseph and Mary, are also well-rounded and hew closely to their biblical selves (which is probably the main reason the book is religiously inoffensive--Jesus, Mary, and Joseph aren't the characters with the interesting twist).
At times the realism is a little too real. The violence in the book is extreme. There are lots of fights and wounds are described in detail. Herod is as physically sick as he is mentally and morally. A plague of locusts is particularly unpleasant, though it spares the fugitives, causing Balthazar to question his skepticism and his life's ambition.
The story comes to a satisfying conclusion for all the characters, good, evil, and the inbetween. I'm glad I read it and would recommend it for those who have the stomach for brutal violence and tough redemption. The nearest comparison that springs to mind is the film In Bruges. If you liked that, you'll enjoy this.
Thanks to A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast that inspired me to read this book!