Three notorious villains protect a carpenter, his virgin wife and their newborn son as they flee the wrath of their Roman pursuers.
Grahame-Smith (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, 2010, etc.) hones his writing chops in this latest take on history’s mysteries, but the results lack the unabashed exuberance of his earlier work, despite a fair bit of swashbuckling. Here he tackles the New Testament, circling in on the Biblical Magi, the Three Wise Men from the Gospel of Matthew. The ringleader here is Balthazar, a hunted fugitive known far and wide as “The Antioch Ghost” for his slippery nature. Captured by a clever Roman captain, Balthazar is brought before mad Herod the Great to suffer for his crimes. In Herod’s dungeons, Balthazar meets kindred spirits Gaspar and his partner Melchyor, two swordsmen for hire. The trio exchange clothes with the real wise men and make their escape to Bethlehem, where they’re attacked with a pitchfork by Joseph and accused of blasphemy by the Virgin Mary. After this auspicious introduction, it’s a fast-paced dash across 200 miles of biblical geography to safety in Egypt. Grahame-Smith throws lots of obstacles in the path of his ragged band, including Balthazar’s tormented memories of his murdered brother, Herod’s approach to solving his messiah problem (the infamous Massacre of the Innocents) and a malevolent Magus with mystical powers and murderous ambition. And that’s before the walking dead (naturally) show up. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to place this anti-religious thief against this heavy religious backdrop—“Either I’m right and he doesn’t exist, or you’re right and he’s the kind of God who watches children die,” Balthazar scolds Mary. But while Grahame-Smith has already sold the script to Warner Brothers, the novel feels less cinematic than its inevitable movie adaptation.
A twist on angels and ministers of grace that feels more like a mercenary exercise than a fully fleshed-out adventure.