Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith
In Grahame-Smith's telling, the so-called "Three Wise Men" are infamous thieves, led by the dark, murderous Balthazar. After a daring escape from Herod's prison, they stumble upon the famous manger and its newborn king. The last thing Balthazar needs is to be slowed down by young Joseph, Mary and their infant. But when Herod's men begin to slaughter the first born in Judea, he has no choice but to help them escape to Egypt.
It's the beginning of an adventure that will see them fight the last magical creatures of the Old Testament; cross paths with biblical figures like Pontius Pilate and John the Baptist; and finally deliver them to Egypt. It may just be the greatest story never told."
Balthazar is a fantastic character and hooked me right away, but he begins the book as a steadfast nonbeliever. The premise of the book is such that one can assume Balthazar will eventually have to accept that the baby he's traveling with is actually the son of God, and I was worried that there would be a big treacly condescending and literal come-to-Jesus moment. I was pleasantly surprised in that while the inevitable moment did come to pass, it wasn't in-your-face or overdone. I have always loved clever historical fiction (or "dark historical revisionism" in this case) so even though I'm not a religious person by any stretch of anyone's imagination, I really liked this book. If I was more current on my Bible knowledge I might have been less surprised by some of the twists and turns, and I couldn't honestly tell you which parts were based on the Bible and which were the author's additions. Even though the eventual escape of the baby Jesus (who is never actually named in the book) and his parents is pretty much assured, there were scenes where I was kind of on the edge of my seat, wondering how they were going to get away.
There are some scenes that are extremely difficult to read, though none of them were really unexpected. I would say that if you're interested in the book but sensitive to violence against children, you'll want to skim through the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem (only one graphic death, but it's truly horrible), and the part where Balthazar's missing brother is finally explained. I feel like the book is good enough and well-written enough that the violent parts shouldn't be a deal breaker unless you just absolutely can't abide violence in your reading. Though they're a bit more graphic than I'd prefer, none are offered up lightly or for cheap shock, and they all seem pretty integral to the plot. The book probably deserves more than this quick and dirty review, but I don't want to give anything away. This was probably my favorite book of the year so far, and I don't want to spoil it for anyone who might give it a shot.