William Heinemann, 6 Jul 2006
A welcome translation for the Russian triptych of stories The Night Watch, this is an ideal way to transport yourself to a contemporary Russia where vampires and magicians are part of the populace.
Anton is an Other, a person who can enter the Twilight world and perform limited acts of magic. Magicians walk among us. Vampires and shape-shifters walk among us too, some working for the Light and some for the Dark. The Light and Dark have existed together under a fragile truce for some years – the Day Watch keep check on the Light Others, the Night Watch on the Dark. Anton works for the Night Watch, ensuring that the Dark keeps in line. One day two apparently unconnected incidents – saving a potentially powerful Other boy called Egor from a vampire and the discovery of a possible catastrophic curse vortex above the head of a young girl named Svetlana – initiates a train of events that places the balance of Light and Dark in jeopardy. Anton is assigned a partner, Olga, whose past misdemeanours have been punished by keeping her almost completely transformed into the shape of an owl. This unlikely pair must prevent the curse from devastating Moscow and hopefully turn the still wavering Egor to the side of Light. However, as events escalate Anton begins to form suspicions that Light and Dark, good and evil are not clear cut and perhaps there is a wider agenda, one in which he is just an expendable pawn.
A tightly realised fantasy The Night Watch succeeds because it creates a believable parallel universe that co-exists with us. Rather than place the conflicts of Light and Dark into simple camps of good and evil, Lukyanenko populates his world with ambiguity and mistrust worthy of a Cold War thriller. Being on the side of good doesn’t make you morally good – the world of the Light Others is one where the manipulation of mankind has resulted in destruction and misery, not happiness and comfort. It’s these complex issues of morality that make the book so chilling and interesting but they don’t depart from the matter in hand which is to create an entertaining fantasy world, where powerful forces can battle as much with ideology as they can with magical violence. It is a book of contrasts, where a piece of chalk can be as important as a city full of people, where good commits evil for what it sees as a greater cause and evil can help peace and creativity.
For anyone familiar with the film version of The Night Watch, which had exposure in the UK before this translation of the book was released, the novel will come as a surprise. Although basically unaltered the film is far more bombastic, filled with visual flourishes and set pieces that emphasise the epic scale of battle – it’s a far less restrained work that actually explores beyond the book’s focus on Anton. In contrast the book eschews pyrotechnic excess (something that is, of course, easier to do in novel form – words have a far lower budget than CGI) for a noirish thriller tone with all the requisite twists and turns that this entails. This is a far more downbeat work, though no less epic in overall design, where the freedom of the novel form allows the atmosphere of post-Soviet Russia to instil itself in the reader’s consciousness. It is also worth noting that the film only concerns itself with the first third of the novel.
If you are after a solid supernatural thriller with noir fiction undertones then look no further, The Night Watch is an imaginative, epic and, paradoxically, down to earth read. Recommended.