Sergei Lukyanenko – The Night Watch

After some busy days and plenty of reading I’m finally in the mood again to update my blog. That’s how it happens. Regular updates were never my intent. I add posts as I please, so in the coming days I will do some catching up.

Most fantasy novels originate from English speaking countries, like the US, the UK and Australia, but occasionally a book from a non-english country does get translated, even while the competition is big. Usually the reason for it is that the book is a big success in it’s own country and the neighbouring countries.  One of these is a fantasy novel of Russian origin: The Night Watch (1998) by Sergei Lukyanenko (his name is spelled in different ways, but this is what’s being used on the book cover of my English edition), the first book of the Watch Cycle. There even has been a movie adaptation of it already so that should say enough about how popular it has been. I haven’t seen the movie and I fairly ignored the series for some time. At the time I didn’t feel like buying it until recently I was in the need for something new and complete. As I’m a non-english native I’m less hesitant about foreign books and always more interested in books that have a different setting.

Those who start with The Night Watch will quickly discover it is Russian Urban Fantasy. As the title suggests the story evolves about a magical police force. Those familiar with Urban Fantasy will know the rest of the format. Although we have the typical batch of creatures like vampires and werewolves they play a minor role, which I was happy about. There is plenty of that stuff around. The story revolves about the magicians. The book follows the so-called good guys, but during the course of the book it becomes clearer that everything isn’t that black and white.

Lukyanenko has divided the book in three stories. These are not parts but really complete plots of their own. It is here that the strength of this book is found. Instead of one big story with many twists and turns we get three of them. The shortness instills a certain intensity in them that really hits the mark. This is certainly the case for the first two stories. There is hardly time to reflect. The pace is fast, but never misses or cuts corners.  It is exactly right. This changes in the third story. The pace is slower and more time is spent on reflection. This is the story with the least plot. It feels more like a concluding story as the first two stories are connected and the third completes it. Some say that the sequel is the weaker one because it connects with beginning or end, but in this case the end is the weaker part. Not that the conclusion is weak, but the third story lacks the power of the first two stories. The plots remain crafty and full with twists, but the third story broke the balance.

A funny thing is that the lack of reflection in the first two stories is their weak point, while the reflection in the third story causes it’s weak point. In a sense a full-action story provides total entertainment, but also a big rush, no time for contemplation. I always read these much faster so that I feel I didn’t have that much time to enjoy the book because I was already done.

In the beginning I had to adapt to the Russian style of writing. This was mainly a change of mood and perception which is different from English writers. Perhaps it is part of the translation. Even so, this was not a bad thing. We see things from a Russian point of view and that is certainly a refreshing thing. Once you get used to it, it reads just as smooth as anything else. I’m pretty picky about Urban Fantasy, but the fact that it’s Russian makes the common Urban Fantasy tripes much more bearable. Lukyanenko doesn’t bother himself with the typical fantasy rules. This is a different universe so he makes up the rules. Creatures may seem similar to ones in popular culture, but they are different in some key parts.

The story is told from a first person point-of-view, but Lukyanenko intersperses this with a second person point-of-view. This is mainly done for technical purposes. They could have been left out, but they do add some extra tension and depth to the story. The main character goes through quite some development as he really get involved in a number of dramatic events. He is a sort 0f anti-hero, but not in the typical sense. As he is a watchman he is used to having hard tasks and the fact that he has joined the titular Night Watch means he has a certain determination to reach his goals. The side characters are somewhat developed, but far less than the main character. This is also caused by the fast action-paced plots combined with the firs person point-of-view. There is simply no time. This is not a really bad thing, but I did not really get much attached to the side characters as they got limited exposure time.

The Night Watch is a well-written book. It still has some flaws, but they are so minor they will not be a bother. In the general fantasy genre I don’t think it will be a classic, but it is certainly above average. In the Urban Fantasy genre I have the feeling this would be one of the best, but the flaw of that genre is that many writers use the same success format. Obviously this does not lead to a bad read, but at a certain point one will have seen it all before and lose interest. The Russian setup and the triple plot combination give The Night Watch an edge that beats its competitors. I would say that the Urban Fantasy genre can use more novels that are not set in the US or UK, but of course this is where the authors get their easy way in. They know the surroundings which they write about which makes easy writing. One thus would need more foreign Urban Fantasy authors, writing about their local places. Still, I would be happy if they could manage without the cliché elements as these are certainly no required ones.

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