Friday, September 14, 2007

R.I.P. II | Nightwatch

Reading for The R.I.P. II Challenge:

The Nightwatch by Sergei Lukyanenko
Translated by Andrew Bromfield
[28/08/2007 ~ 13/09/2007]

I picked up The Nightwatch because of the awesome film adaptation. Having watched the film will not spoil you for the novel, as film and book share only minor storylines. The plots in the book are far more complicated than the film. Not necessary better ― just more complicated.

The story is an urban dark fantasy, set in Post-Soviet Moscow. Night Watch spins the mythology of the Others ― a race of supernatural beings (shape-shifters, vampires, magicians) divided between the Light and the Darkness. Each side has a Watch that serves to keep the other party in check. The Night Watch represent the Light, and they operate in the night; the Day Watch are serves the Dark, they watch in the day.

Each violation of the treaty by one side allows the other to a similar infraction. So, because of the treaty, the Nightwatch and the Daywatch are forced to take their battle onto more subtle, more complicated levels. The heads of the two forces play complicated games, pawns are sacrificed, the agenda is never clear – and until the end, you don't really know what was at stake:

"A complex maneuver," I said, glancing at Boris Ignatievich. "From both sides. The Day Watch sacrifices its pawns, and the Night Watch does the same. For the great goal. … But there's an end that justifies the means. Two great magicians who have opposed each other for hundreds of year cook up another little war. Amd the Light Magician is in the toughest spot … he has to stake everything. And for him to lose is more than just an inconvenience; it's a step into the Twilight, into the Twilight forever. But still he stakes everyone's lives. His own side's and the other's…"

The novel is a collection of three loosely related stories, all held together by first-person narrator, Anton Gorodetsky, who is more fleshed out in the novel. He is an normal person who was put in an extraordinary position as an Other, and as a reluctant field agent of the Night Watch (thankfully without being annoying angsty). He just wants to do his best, but his neighbours are vampires, from the Dark. He wants to be friends with his vampire neighbours, but they are wary of him.

He is also the character who pieces the conspiracies together, through guesswork and blind chance (or destiny) — but here is where the novel is most ineffective. There is never convincing evidence of how Anton figures out the political maneuver between the heads of the two Watches. He reaches his conclusions almost out of thin-air. Sloppy.

We see things through his eyes, we hear him question the ambiguity of the Watches: "All of us have to struggle, not just against the Darkness, but against the Light. Because sometimes it blinds us"

Night Watch is an old-fashioned fantasy story about the struggle of Good and Evil, and how one has to make choices. In between are some humanist messages, about how intentions do not always justify the choices. In doing good, we might serve the path of the Dark. How can one make any kind of choice with this realisation?

How many of you there still are, girls and boys of various ages, raised by na├»ve parents in the sixties. How many of you there are, so unhappy, not knowing how to be happy. How I long to take pity on you, how I long to help you. To touch you through the Twilight—gently, with no force at all. To give you just a little confidence in yourself, just a tiny bit of optimism, a gram of willpower, a crumb of irony. To help you, so that you could help other.

But I can't.

Every action taken by Good grants permission for an active response by Evil. The Treaty! The Watches! The balance of peace in the world?

Truth is, The Night Watch is an absorbing read. There is enough intrigue and interesting stock characters to keep a reader turning the pages. Some of the cheesy plot devices can make a more demanding reader cringe, of course (the fate of the world hangs in the balance, on a piece of ... chalk?) ― but my advice is to just ignore the cringe-worthy moments and allow yourself to enjoy the ride.

It is amazing how familiar yet different an urban dark fantasy set in Moscow can feel. The Watches are structured within a rigid bureacracy, almost like the 19th century Russian civil service that readers of Dostoevsky, Bulgakov and Gogol will find familiar.

When was the last time we get to read popular fiction from Russia? Consider it a cultural experience that is also entertaining. After this, I'm dying to pick up Day Watch and Twilight Watch ― the later books in the series.

{Housekeeping: The Nightwatch is also included in The Armchair Traveler Challenge, as it is set in Moscow, Russia.}


Anonymous said...

its good to know that this is good. i've watched the film and was curious about the book, but wasn't sure if it was just a good idea that happened to work better on the screen. thanks for the review!

darkorpheus said...

I didn't pick up the book at first -- because I thought the film had spoiled the plot for me. As it turns out, different storylines altogether. And there have more going on with Olga, the owl-sidekick for Anton. So, it was fun.

I didn't realise I would finish it so fast. The book just kept making me coming back to it, and I kept reading.

Eva said...

ok, after your review, I think I'm going to bump this one up to the short TBR list!

I love Russia, and I've been to Moscow, and I'm just getting into urban fantasy. Sounds like a match made in heaven!

darkorpheus said...

Eva How short is your TBR list? I'm drowning with 17 (last count) in progress, so I am jealous of anyone who can keep their reading under control.

You've been to Moscow? Cool. I've always wondered about St Petersburg myself - it's the Dostoevsky fan in me speaking. But I have a dream of one day going down by the Trans-Siberian Rail into Russia. :)

Anonymous said...

Hey, I stumbled upon this site looking for more info on the author and any other works he has done. After having read the three books in this series, what I can say is that I'm disappointed that they are finished. I found them to be an easy read, but with enough depth to keep them very interesting. The plight of the characters seemed real throughout the books. Also, I found the dialog to be refreshingly real as well. I would say this series is a must read for any fans of sci/fi, fantasy, and thriller novels.