Night Watch (1998)
Author: Sergei Lukyanenko
Genre: Fantasy (Urban)
While humans indifferently walk the earth, a battle seethes between the forces of good and evil in the nebulous otherworld, the Twilight. Set in 1990s Moscow, Lukyanenko’s Night Watch follows the conflict between a race of magically endowed humans who vie for the souls of the average man. They are called the “Others,” divided into the Night Watch and Day Watch. The Night Watch fights in the name of the Light and has the power to protect humans by granting them momentary solace from pain, encouraging kindness, mercy and love through magical intervention, and protects against the evil powers of vampires and other magical creatures wishing humans harm. By contrast, the Day Watch works in the service of the Dark, selfishly pursuing evil purposes to the detriment of humans. These two forces slip between the urban world of contemporary Moscow and the Twilight, a parallel world of magic, in their respective campaigns to swing the balance of power in their favor. The Night Watch and Day Watch have coexisted in an uneasy truce and abide by the treaty which governs the balance between good and evil. Every act of kindness is balanced by an act of malice. This truce is threatened by the appearance of a new and powerful sorceress and a young boy who has the potential to shift humankind irrevocably in the direction of good or evil. SPOILER: Anton Gorodetsky, a mid-level Night Watchman, average magician, and avid rock music fan, is at the center of the conflict between the Light and the Dark. He must overcome several obstacles in order to preserve the delicate balance between opposing sides. Most importantly, Anton saves the great sorceress, Svetlana Nazarova, from self-destruction. Thus begins Anton’s journey down a lonely path where he is forced to confront his allegiance to the Night Watch. Ultimately, Anton’s fate is bound to his love of Svetlana, the one woman who can put an end to human sorrow. He has the potential to unleash Svetlana’s powers for the good of humankind or to preserve their love for one another. He must choose between the fate of humankind or his own happiness.
Geographical Setting: Moscow, Russia
Time Period: 1990s
Series: World of Watches, No. 1
Sergei Lukyanenko is adept at creating multi-dimensional characters while not sacrificing action or plot line. The main character, Anton Gorodetsky, is very flushed out, so much so that the reader is privy to his music tastes and internal dialogue. While the majority of Lukyanenko’s novel is written from the perspective of Anton, secondary characters also play an important role. This is particularly true in the way that Lukyanenko structures his story. The novel is broken into three sections: Destiny, Among His Own Kind, and All for My Own Kind. Each section includes a prologue written about or by a separate character, giving it the feel of three separate stories. Indeed, it reads like a TV serial. This gives it an added modern, urban twist. Anton’s music, the insider’s description of Moscow life and geography, as well as the urban environment, mesh well with the magical parallel world of the Twilight. As well, the stories track like a mystery novel. The protagonist must undergo several missions to discover some hidden secret or truth. The Moscow grit, first person narrative, important secondary characters, and character development of the protagonist are reminiscent of a hard-boiled mystery and police procedurals while still possessing the main elements of urban fantasy. One of the most present elements of Lukyanenko’s narrative is his reliance on philosophy to drive the actions and perceptions of his characters. Although true of some Western novels, Russian literature relies heavily on the tradition of philosophical discourse. The philosophy of the novel (there can be no good without evil) is primarily couched in dialogue, which makes it far more palatable than a running monologue by the author. Moreover, the dialogue-rich narrative moves the pace along rapidly. There are a few placid moments for reflection, but by and large, action and the way in which characters behave, speak, and relate to one another drive the story. In terms of tone, the novel is dark and edgy. There are very few humorous moments, most of which are dark. The edgy quality of the novel is accentuated by rock music lyrics and countered by the Twilight world where everything moves in slow motion and the world takes on the look and feel of an old black and white movie. Urban grit meets the surreal. Stylistically, Night Watch combines musings about morality and down-to-earth details about every day life, marking the text with thoughtful dialogue and conversational quips.
Read-alikes: Readers who enjoy Lukyanenko’s anthology-style novel, a blend of the surreal and the real, and the feel of gritty urban streets may find Viktor Pelevin’s anthology of stories, A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia and Other Stories, attractive. Pelevin’s work consists of eight stories, some of which resemble parables, about supernatural phenomenon in modern Russia. The tales serve as a satirical critique of contemporary Russia, not unlike Lukyanenko’s appraisal of Russia’s intimate bedfellows, the Dark and the Light. One story is reminiscent of the way Lukyanenko describes the sleeping human population, unaware of the warring magical factions surrounding them. In one of Pelevin’s tales, the protagonist discovers that everyone around him is asleep at all times and volunteers to join the sleeping masses. Another Pelevin story describes the acceptance of a human into a coven of werewolves as a commonplace event, not unlike the believable fantasy world of Night Watch. Unlike Lukyanenko, Pelevin includes comedy and whimsy into his stories. For readers who want a lighter version of Night Watch, Pelevin’s anthology should serve them well. Jim Butcher’s Storm Front, the first novel in the Dresden Files series, may interest readers who enjoy a blend of mystery and fantasy, rich and realistic descriptions of a magical world existing in an urban setting, a dingy modern city, a fast-paced read, and an Everyman protagonist. Harry, an average magician living in contemporary Chicago, goes into business as a private consultant working side-by-side with the Chicago police department. A double murder committed by a dark magician draws Harry into a battle against an evil force. Dry humor distinguishes Butcher’s narrative from Lukyanenko, but the dark tone, the first-person narrative, and the urban appeal parallels Night Watch. Full Moon Rising by Keri Arthur may interest Night Watch fans as a good cross-over from urban fantasy to paranormal romance. It combines fast-paced narrative, well developed central characters, sundry fantastical creatures, no lack of action, and a mystery to uncover. Riley Jensen, a half vampire half werewolf member of the Directorate of Other Races, an agency charged with the capture of nonhuman criminals, joins forces with a sexy vampire to find her twin brother who has gone missing. Although Full Moon Rising lacks Lukyanenko’s philosophical dialogue, it makes up for it with full-bodied characters and plenty of action. Readers who enjoy darker urban fantasies, well-developed characters, and an entirely believable supernatural world parallel to an urban reality may find Charles de Lint’s Forests of the Heart an excellent read. Although it is not as fast-paced as Night Watch, it develops the main and secondary characters thoroughly and is a compelling read. The supernatural world is rich and convincing, while the fictional city of Newford is as believable as Chicago or New York. The novel centers on two women, Ellie and Betina, who possess magical abilities to connect to the supernatural world. Meanwhile, the malicious and bitter Gentry, Gaelic spirits from native Ireland, and the Manitou, the indigenous Native American spirits, are vying for supremacy over the supernatural world. Ellie and Betina, with the help of their friends, must find a way to put a stop to the war by dangerously entering into the supernatural world and harnessing its immense powers. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere should interest readers who identify with average protagonists who must overcome great obstacles in order to save the day. Moreover, Gaiman is adept at describing the psychological, the symbolic, and the philosophical, all important elements of Lukyanenko’s work. Gaiman’s complex characters and gritty London Below will attract Night Watch fans. Neverwhere centers on the life of Richard Mayhew, an average Londoner up from the English countryside. After helping a strange girl, Door, Richard discovers he is trapped in an alternate reality know as London Below. In order to escape from London Below, Richard must help Door uncover why her father was marked for death by the evil forces of the underground city. It is a tale of good versus evil set in a gritty urban otherworld. Gaiman is careful to show how reality penetrates the surreal world of London Below, and that the real and the fantastic often intertwine.
Red Flags: Graphic violence; disturbing images of evil; nontraditional ideas of free love and sex