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Long Live the Antioch Ghost!
on December 28, 2016
I may never forget the Antioch Ghost. I had expected Seth Grahame-Smith’s “Unholy Night” to be a reimagining of the biblical nativity tale and Joseph and Mary’s flight to Egypt, one where the Three Wise Men were thieves instead of magi. In concept, the book was intriguing, especially to someone like myself who enjoys historical fantasy with religious elements. In practice, the books was so much more, all because Grahame-Smith gave us the Antioch Ghost.
In the story’s world, set in the year 2 B.C. during the reign of Caesar Augustus, the Antioch Ghost is a legend, the Scourge of Rome and Thief of the Eastern Empire. The moniker belongs to Balthazar, a Syrian, who we find running from the army of Herod the Great, king of Jerusalem, who is pursuing the Ghost after his latest heist. When Balthazar is caught and imprisoned with two more outlaws, an African named Gaspar and a Greek named Melchyor, he must devise an ingenious escape, and three of Herod’s priests (“wise men,” no less) prove integral to that plan.
On the run in Bethlehem, Balthazar and his two companions take refuge in a barn, where they encounter a carpenter named Joseph, his teenage wife, and their newborn son. They also encounter Herod’s men, who have orders from their king to kill every newborn in Judea to eliminate the Messiah, whom Herod’s prophets claim will topple all the kingdoms of the world. (Herod, by the way, proves to be a truly fiendish and memorable villain in this tale!) This slaughter of innocents proves more than Balthazar can bear, motivating him to save the young family and bring holy hell down on Rome.
As far as stories about thieves go – of the medieval and ancient kind, at least – “Unholy Night” is one of the best I’ve read. In fact, had the story simply been about Balthazar the thief, it would be a good read. Balthazar, however, is not a religious man, and like many a thief he thinks only of himself. Yet once he’s involved with Mary, Joseph, and especially their infant child, he’s forced to confront serious religious questions, including the purpose of God. This conflict elevates the novel in my view.
Though despite its religious themes, the novel is no sermon. Instead, it’s a rollicking adventure packed with plenty of supernatural elements for fans of historical fantasy. There’s even a magus – an old wizard who is the last of his race -- employed by the Romans to hunt down the child using unholy magic. And then there’s the young Roman officer named Pontius Pilate who Caesar sends to aid Herod in his dark quest. The appearance of a young Pilate was an unexpected twist, and Grahame-Smith does a clever job of tying the events in this novel to those later in Christ’s life, as well as to a scorchingly famous event in the history of Rome.
In all, I thoroughly enjoyed this tale. My only disappointment is that it’s a standalone novel, which means there will be no more stories about the Antioch Ghost. The man had series potential, but at least, in his only performance, he stole the show.