It's the nativity, but not as we know it.
As you may well expect from the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, this is a rather different version of the Christmas story. Instead of the three wise men we get three thieves. Yep, thieves. Not kings or holy men or even noble men, but lowdown dirty thieves. Fabulous. The trio meet up in a dungeon, awaiting execution. It is a complete accident that they become mixed up with Mary, Joseph, and the little baby Jesus.
The brains behind the escape plan is Balthazar, or the notorious Antioch Ghost, a nickname in which he takes some pride. He's been the scourge of the rich for years, stealing whatever and wherever he wanted, then vanishing without trace. The story opens with a brilliant chase sequence as Balthazar is pursued across the desert by 'a cloud of indeterminate wrath'. He can't tell exactly how many soldiers are after him, but it is a lot. Too many even for an escape artist of his calibre. And so he ends up in the presence of Herod.
Herod is a repulsive figure, diseased in body and mind. Taunted by the prophecy of the King of the Jews he enlists his Roman overlords in the campaign against a newborn child. Balthazar's brief encounter with Herod is plenty enough for him to know that if Herod is against it, it is something worth saving. Fate (or divine will) gives him a good old shove towards that stable. A violent and bloody campaign for freedom begins. The book has all the gore and fight scenes you could wish for, and some of it is brutal. There are also some lovely little nods to the traditional story, such as why the thieves have frankincense and myrhh with them.
It's about Balthazar really though. As his past is revealed it becomes clear that he is anything but a man without morals. He is a victim of circumstance, whose own life has been destroyed by casual brutality. His dedication to revenge has shaped his whole existence. On the surface this is a bloody, fast and furious, funny and irreverent story. But, you know what, it is also a story of redemption and the triumph of good over evil. Balthazar is determined that the young family he stumbles across will survive. In the struggle to save these three individuals his inner goodness and decency is drawn out, and he emerges a better and happier man. It's interesting to me that despite the all the changes, the spirit of the story is still one of hope. It's enough to warm the cockles of even this atheist's heart.