Meet Balthazar, a thieve, occasional murderer, and con artist. From a young age, he has used his wits and flexible morals to keep himself fed and alive. He joined forces with two other criminals while in Herod’s dungeons, fleeing on camelback. They stopped to rest at a barn, only to find a slip of woman, who had recently given birth, and her husband pointing a pitchfork at them menacingly. That’s right. The three wise men mentioned in the bible were criminals in disguise and on the run.
I do believe this has become my favorite Baby Jesus story. I really enjoyed the author’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but found his other famous work Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to be rather boring. I am glad to say that I found this book to be pretty entertaining. I was a little worried that it would be too religious for me. But that was not the case at all.
The story is pretty gritty. It’s a rough time historically. There’s no indoor plumbing, you have to work pretty hard for your food and shelter, and might makes right. Balthazar is a really interesting character. You don’t have to like him to be intrigued. Pretty soon he becomes known as the Antioch Ghost, being Syrian and able to flit about stealing this bit of jewelry here and that bit of coin there. Alas, he ends up on Herod’s radar and he whips his little army into a frenzy to catch the Antioch Ghost.
In Herod’s dungeons, he meets two other criminals, Gaspar and Melchyor. The three of them make a plan and escape, complete with disguises and camels. It looks like the worst is behind them, until they meet Mary and Joseph and their newborn and get caught up in Herod’s blood lust for the baby. The fighting does contain gory bits, which makes it that much more real and also shows the clear motivation for our characters to either fight or flee.
My one little criticism is one I am sure many can guess: the female characters are few and far between. Early on, there is a lady sex object that Balthazar cons out of some baubles. Then there is Mary, who starts off mute then moves to timid and eventually finds a small voice. Later in the story, there is Sela, who is a fortune teller. She is the most fleshed out of the female characters but since she comes into the story so late, we have only a little time with her. I would have liked to see a better gender balance.
OK, so back to the good stuff. I loved the humor, which was often harsh. The author doesn’t flinch from keeping things real. There is very little reverence in this story and even when you get a few touches of it, there’s still plenty of room for a reader’s personal interpretation. For instance, Balthazar doesn’t believe that Mary was a virgin, but he is most definitely against Herod and his men killing babies. Balthazar is very skeptical about any mystical or religious significance that Mary and Joseph attach to their son and for the story, this comes off as very practical.
As their adventures become more dire and injuries and deaths occur, Balthazar starts to wonder if there is some divine power helping them along. Yet if he considers that, then he has to consider if there is some malevolent force assisting Herod in his hunt for baby Jesus. I really liked that the author left the determination of this up to the reader. At the beginning of the story, I didn’t like Balthazar but he was interesting. By the end, I felt he deserved a pat on the back, a chilled beer, and a month’s worth of rest.
Narration: Peter Berkrot did a really good job with this book. He had a variety of accents and kept all his characters distinct. His voice for Balthazar was the best and he put a lot of emotion in to all the right places. While there were only a few lady characters, his female voices were believable. His voice for the spoiled, angry Herod was also well done.