Book Review: Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch

My dad once told me a joke about Russian literature: “Ivan looked out the window, and a thousand thoughts went through his head. Thought number one…”

Night Watch is kind of throwing my October Horror schtick off, because it’s not really a horror novel. Oh sure, there’s the occasional vampire or demon, but the book’s more in the vein of Urban Fantasy than anything. Just not messy enough to be proper horror, I guess. This didn’t stop them from shelving it under the Horror section at the used bookstore, though…but what can you do.

The premise is fairly simple; there are ‘Dark Ones’ and ‘Light Ones,’ hiding their powers from humanity and plotting against each other. Now, the gimmick is, there’s a detente between the Light and the Dark, to the point where the two sides police each other. The forces of the Light make up the Night Watch (because they chase after the beasties at night), and they’re policed themselves whenever the sun comes up, and the Day Watch gets to be in charge.

The book’s central character is Anton, a middle-ranking analyst in the Night Watch who naturally gets caught up in the various conspiracies. The book’s divided up into three parts- three independent novellas, really. The first is about Anton’s first field mission (and how it goes horribly wrong), the second is about Anton being framed for murder (well, magic-murder), and the third is about a plot to rewrite the course of history. Given how the book was written in 1998, I’m guessing that we can blame the Night Watch for Putin coming to power. THANKS GUYS.

There’s a definite Cold War mentality that hangs over the novel. It kind of reminded me of old spy movies, all grey skies, long overcoats, and clandestine meetings. There’s probably a bunch of other cultural cues I’m missing, but the biggest impression I got from the book was how Russian everything is. Seriously, it’s Anton Checkhov chugging borscht while wearing a fur hat levels of Russian. Heck, in the first chapter Anton chases after some vampires and throws cheap vodka on them, which burns them like holy water. That’s how Russian this book is.

The vodka thing illustrates another point about the novel, however; the fact that the system of magic and monsters…doesn’t make much sense. We’re not told WHY vodka burns vampires, and it doesn’t even factor into the rest of the novel. It’s just sort of…there. While I don’t expect there to be stat blocks and spell lists in any given fantasy book I read, I still expect a book to give me at least some idea what the characters can and can’t do. I never got that in Night Watch– the magic is kind of abstract, in that the characters can pretty much do anything they need to with it, ranging from clouding men’s minds to fixing broken objects to flinging around the occasional fireball. On top of this, the magic just seemed kind of…bland. I mean, even if J.K. Rowling’s magic system doesn’t make much sense if you look at it for too long, it’s at least got character, in that spells have funny names and histories and such. There’s very little of this in Night Watch– occasionally characters will wave their hands around to do their mojo, but most of it seems to be very subdued.

Without any frame of reference, I didn’t really buy into the stakes of the novel; the fact that a lot of plot points hinged on Destiny (with a capital D) didn’t help much either. I’ve read entirely too many cheap fantasy novels where Destiny (with a capital D) is used as an excuse to shuttle the characters from one point to another without worrying about little stuff like ‘motivation’ or ‘agency’ or whatever. (See also: The Wizard of 4th Street for an even worse example of this).

This isn’t to say that I hate Night Watch. Complain as I may, it’s still better than some stuff I’ve read in the past. And there are some genuinely interesting parts. In particular, there’s a really fun sequence in the last third of the book where a bunch of the Night Watch agents all go out to a country house and have a drunken barbeque weekend. I can’t help but love the image of a bunch of secret agent wizards cutting loose and goofing off. And then there’s the next morning, where the protagonist, Anton, is the first one awake in the house while everyone else is sleeping off their hangovers. I’ve been in that situation myself (just with fewer wizards), and Lukyanenko captures the weird vibe of it pretty well.

Ultimately, I think I may be missing a lot, reading Night Watch in English instead of Russian. Translation is a tricky business, and I dare say that Urban Fantasy is a genre that’s really dependent on language. There’s a matter of tone- whether it’s the faux-hard-boiled-ness of the Dresden Files, or the dry wit of The Laundry, that gives the best Urban Fantasy novels substance.

And even without the tone, there’s also the matter of cultural references. For example, while I was doing my research (that is, reading wikipedia) on the book for this blog post, I learned that one of the major characters in the book, Anton’s boss Gesar, is actually based on a famous Tibetan king who had a whole epic written about him. I’m not exactly sure how well known that is in Russia, but I certainly didn’t know anything about it. In a more mundane example, Anton listens to a band called Picnic a lot, to the point where the book quotes song lyrics like an angsty teenager. I’d never heard of the band before, so any resonance the song might have was lost on me. This goes both ways, of course; I imagine any Russian reader would be confused by references to, I dunno, Bad Religion, in an English novel.

(Note: Picnic doesn’t sound anything like Bad Religion, it’s just that they were the first sufficiently obscure-ish band I could think of).

So yeah. Night Watch doesn’t really do anything new with the Urban Fantasy genre, but I’m not exactly the target audience, either. I’m sure there are legions and legions of eager Russian fans who absolutely love to read about Anton’s various adventures. I mean, heck, Lukyanenko has written several more Watch-verse novels, and they even made a movie out of the first one, so there must me something driving its popularity. If I were to become suddenly fluent in Russian, maybe I’d give the book another go in its original language, just to see the difference.

At least I can pretend to be a literary snob now, and say I read Russian literature from time to time. I’ll have some brandy and wear a smoking jacket, while I’m at it. Be all classy.

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