Book Review

Book Review: Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

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In Night Watch, the first in the urban-noir fantasy series by Russian author Sergei Lukyanenko, low-grade White Magician Anton Gorodetsky finds himself caught up in a plot orchestrated by higher-grade magicians to change the course of human history. No pressure, right?

I don’t normally read fantasy. In fact, I never read fantasy. Why? Because of Flannery O’Connor. She once said that if you put a supernatural element in a story, everything else in that story needs to be so grounded in reality that the reader can’t help but accept the supernatural element as real, too.

That struck a chord in me, helping to explain why I’ve never been able to enjoy stories set in alternative worlds. But this book aced the whole grounded-in-reality thing. What’s more real than a gritty post-Soviet world where the characters live in depressing Khruschev-era apartment buildings? I had to give it a chance.

The World

In the book, our world is controlled by magicians, shapeshifters, vampires, and other supernatural creatures, who are grouped into two main camps: the Night Watch (Light Magicians and their ilk) and the Day Watch (Dark Magicians and their ilk). The supernatural world exists in a parallel dimension to ours called the “Twilight.” We can’t see it, but we can get a sense of when stuff goes haywire in it. Bad moods, bad luck, unexplained mood swings: all this is the stuff not of PMS, but of shifts in the balance of power between the Day Watch and the Night Watch, who can move between our world and “Twilight.” As Anton says “That’s how myths are born. Out of our carelessness, out of our tattered nerves, out of jokes that go wrong and flashy gestures.” “Our” in this case means the supernatural beings.

This set-up appeals to me, and probably anyone subject to both superstition and mood swings. Wouldn’t it be kind of fun to realize that all those shivers, deja-vu moments, and inexplicable bad moods are the result of a magician’s exploits? I like that better than thinking I have moments that border on mental illness.

“The common good and the individual good rarely coincide…” Sure, I know it’s true. But some truths are probably worse than lies.

Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

The world-building here is pretty good. One small problem is that there’s so much more of it than the reader gets. You’re thrown into the story with Anton, our main characters, as he’s on patrol for the Night Watch. Unfortunately, you don’t get a real sense of who’s out there, what the “Twilight” is, or how minutely regulated the actions of our supernatural friends are. There’s an entire treaty that regulates which actions the different degrees of magicians can take. When one side oversteps their bounds, the other side gets a penalty shot: a freebie that undoes the imbalance.

You only get a feel for this later, as Anton navigates the complicated world of “if you influence humans in a fifth-degree intervention, our side gets a fourth-degree intervention, neener, neener, neener” kind of way. I sympathize with the author’s trouble here–overwhelm the reader in the beginning with a bunch of rules these characters are subject to, or confuse the hell out of us for 20-50 pages and hope they don’t hate me when I finally get around to explaining this stuff. I was pretty confused for a while in the beginning, but the setting and characters were intriguing enough to convince me to keep going. It’s not ideal, but it wasn’t enough to convince me to give up.

The Conflict

This is a book I think Nathaniel Hawthorne would have loved, if only for its “light” and “dark” imagery. There’s a reason Lukyanenko didn’t name them “Good Magicians” and “Evil Magicians.” One of the best parts of the book is the way “light” magicians use other characters for their own ends, and “dark” magicians become strange confidantes and maybe even allies for our hero, who just wants to do the right thing. The problem with that, and the main reason I like this book, is that there is no right thing. The world sucks. That’s the big realization here. Boris Ignatievich Gesar, the boss you respect, want to admire, and kind of fear doesn’t really care about you, or the world at large. He cares about his vision for that world. So you can’t respect him any longer. Zabulon, the enemy you also respect, begrudgingly admire, and also kind of fear doesn’t care about you either. He wants everyone to be happy, which means doing exactly what they want, regardless of the chaos that might cause. So you can’t back him, either, because it would be like agreeing to anarchy.

So what’s a humble, good-hearted low-grade magician to do? That’s the real conflict here. And it’s a conflict I can get behind because most days I feel like the world is going to hell in a handbasket and can’t be saved. As Anton says, “Sooner or later the time comes when you have to betray your own side, plant bags of heroin in pockets, and beat people on the kidneys—carefully, so there are no marks.”

“Why was it that the Light acted through lies, and the Darkness acted through the truth? Why was it that our truth proved powerless, but lies were effective? And why was the Darkness able to manage perfectly well with truth in order to do Evil?”

Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

The Format

This central conflict grows and develops through three separate parts. Are they novellas? Not really, because to earn the name, they would have to stand alone. They don’t, with the possible exception of the first one. If you were given the second or third novella alone, without the others, I think you’d toss it across the room out of confusion. You’d have no idea who these characters are, or what the hell was going on.

This tripartite structure didn’t really work for me. It came close, but just when you’re really bonding with a character or getting sucked into the world a bit deeper, the story’s over. You turn the page, and suddenly you’re somewhere else and days or weeks have gone by. It’s disorienting, and extremely disruptive to the subject of our next discussion.

The Love Story

This is one of the weakest aspects of the book. That’s unfortunate, because it’s also the underpinning for every action Anton takes in the second and third novellas. Our hero, Anton, falls in love with Svetlana, a girl who has the potential to be one of the most powerful sorceresses the world has ever seen. In the first novella, it’s his job to destroy a black funnel cloud hanging over her—the result of a curse. He has to talk to her, get her to confide in him, and figure out who might hate her enough to put such a curse on her. This part of the love story is very entertaining. She’s skittish, and he has to win her over. He finds himself falling for her, and the job goes from just an assignment to something that will change his life forever. Here’s how Anton describes her: “An introverted, bookish child, with a mass of complexes and her head full of crazy ideals and a childish faith in the beautiful prince who was searching for and would surely find her.” No wonder I relate, right?

But in the second and third sections, things move way too fast with too little development. Anton is in love, but Svetlana is in training to become a kick-ass sorceress. She seems lost and confused, and so does he. You can’t help but wonder why they’re still so attached to each other. If this love is what they’re going to stake their future on…and the future of the world, as it turns out…we need to believe this is a holy, earth-shattering kind of love. They don’t have to understand it, and shouldn’t, but they should feel it. I don’t get the sense that they do. It’s a problem.

“Love is happiness, but only when you believe it will last forever. Even though every time it turns out to be a lie, it’s only faith that gives love its strength and its joy.”

Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

The Judgment

The book becomes more philosophical as it goes on. That’s all right—I’m okay with morals and motivations changing as the world expands around the characters. However, all attempt at a plot seemed to vanish as the philosophy took center stage. The prose is obfuscatory at times, to the point where I have no real idea what actually happened at the end. There’s no doubt this book needed to be shorter. It needed a dragon-lady of an editor. The prose is enchanting at times and painfully stilted at times. Any translation issues aside, the through-lines need to be excavated.

The final message, from what I could tell, is that fighting for love is the meaning of life. Anton says, “What was my truth worth, if I was prepared to defend the entire world, but not those who were close to me? If I subdued hate, but wouldn’t give love a chance?”

That’s where this book shines—in its questions, in its lack of moral certainty. So much of this book is about disillusionment. Anton comes to realize that choosing sides between “good” and “evil” is pointless, because they swap morals and methods at will. All you can really do is drink vodka to soothe your soul, find someone to love, and hold onto that love because that’s what’s going to keep you wanting to live when everything and everyone else screws you over for their personal benefit. There’s something very Russian and fatalistic at work here—the sense that no matter who’s running the show, it’s going to suck. Things aren’t going to get better. They can’t. It’s too late. So have a drink, snuggle up with the one you love, and live to fight another day.

Stay thirsty, my friends.

“It’s okay to get drunk Anton…Only you have to get drunk on vodka. Cognac and wine – that’s all for the heart.”
“So what’s vodka for?”
“For the soul. If it’s hurting real bad.”

Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

Interesting facts about this book:

Night Watch was originally published in 1998. In 2004, the Russian film version was released. Guess who else liked this book? Quentin Tarantino. He called it “an epic of extraordinary power.” The New York Times said it’s “Star Wars meets the Vampires in Moscow.” That might mean more if I had ever heard of Vampires in Moscow.

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I write thrillers, romance, historical fiction, tiara posts, and more. Right now, I'm working on a nonfiction trilogy: Grand Duchess Hilda of Baden, Grand Duchess Elizaveta Mikhailovna of Russia, and Princess Augusta of Brunswick.

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