#CBR6 Review #5 – Night Watch
Profile: Urban Fantasy, Suspense, Horror, The Watches Pentalogy
After Action Report:
(Read in stereotypical movie preview voiceover) In a world where epic battles between good and evil are a dime a dozen on the Teen Fantasy shelves, one Russian author struggles to bring a sense of subtly and realism to stories about vampires, werewolves and wizards. (End voiceover) And that’s to his credit. Lukyanenko’s vision of a supernatural world where nothing is as it seems sounds trite on paper, but it is actually a well-conceived exploration of the tropes that make up our understanding of good and evil.
Night Watch is three stories, all told from the perspective of Anton, a mid-level agent of the eponymous Night Watch who gets tangled up in the power plays of his superiors. The Night Watch itself is an organization of ‘Light’ aligned magicians and supernatural beings who enforce the decades long truce between the forces of Light and Darkness. Anton normally fills the role of an analyst for the Night Watch, but extraordinary circumstances pull him into the field to deal with one of the rare incidents that requires cooperation between the Night Watch and its Dark counterpart, the Day Watch.
A massive curse is building over the head of a seemingly ordinary woman, and it threatens to not only take her life, but obliterate all of Moscow in the process. Simultaneously, a young boy is awakening to his power as an ‘Other,’ a magician capable of either Light or Darkness, and his choice could swing the balance of power in the city in either direction.
In these tense circumstances, we are introduced to an increasingly ill-defined standoff between good and evil. The strength of Night Watch stems from the shades of grey that Lukyanenko uses to paint both sides of the conflict. The forces of Darkness are just as worried about the impending destruction of Moscow as Light agents, and the higher-ups on the side of Light are playing a long game of deception that brings their shining ideals into question. As our lens into this conflict, Anton is surprisingly idealistic. His reluctance and discomfort with the increasingly suspect tactics of Boris Ignatovich, the commander of the Moscow Night Watch, make him a much more sympathetic protagonist. He may be an Other, with powers beyond human comprehension, but his dedication to the abstract concept of good seems to be more pure or honest than many of his comrades. And yet, this moral purity doesn’t come off as naiveté, but rather as a many struggling with his beliefs. A man being tested, perhaps for the first time.
Lukyanenko’s voice seems to be pitch perfect for the story he is telling. Even through the translation into English, the seething, oppressive atmosphere of Moscow is palpable. It is a very Russian take on the Noir style that retains its cultural heritage, even in English. Andrew Bromfield has done a tremendous job with the translation, from the descriptions to the dialogue, with one minor exception. Lukyanenko makes use of a number of song lyrics throughout the course of the book, but their translations are clunky at best. They lack musicality and rhyme. Obviously translating lyrics is a difficult job in the best of circumstances, but I do wish that Bromfield had tried a little harder to at least keep the meter of the lyrics intact, if nothing else.
Night Watch got a lot of attention in the U.S. when the movie adaptation came stateside in 2006. I watched it then and didn’t really enjoy it, though I could why it received critical acclaim. In my mind, the book holds up a little better. The three vignettes move the story forward at a better pace than the film’s somewhat frenetic plot. And the film still only covers the first chapter of the novel. Also, some of the little changes made to tie the movie together undermine a great deal of the subtlety that Lukyanenko brought to the book.
With all that in mind, Night Watch is an excellent take on the urban fantasy genre. Yes there are vampires and werewolves and other refugees from dark fantasy as we have come to know it, but Lukyanenko doesn’t let these tropes stop him from telling a truly interesting story. And if the series needs any more recommendation, I’ve already bought my copy of Day Watch.
As a final caveat, fans of the movie may dislike some of the translation changes from screen to page. The ‘Gloom’ of the film has been replaced by ‘Twilight,’ which sounds a bit arch, and a number of the names have undergone slight spelling adjustments. I didn’t find these changes to be too distracting, but die-hard fans may get hung up on Zabulon’s new moniker.