#CBR6 Review #22 – Last Watch

Last Watch

Target: Sergei Lukyanenko’s Last Watch.  Translated by Andrew Bromfield (The Watches pentalogy #4)

Profile: Modern Fantasy, Suspense, Urban Fantasy

After Action Report:

So, I spent a really unreasonable amount of time waiting for and then looking for the Harper paperback release of Last Watch.  I waited so long that the fifth book in the series was published stateside and my copy actually started to gather dust on my shelf.  Eventually I contacted Harper Collins which prompted a very curt autoreply informing me that they didn’t have the publication rights.  Although the Random House imprint they directed me to doesn’t seem to have the U.S. rights either, so…

Last Watch is the conclusion of all the storylines explored by The Watches books so far.  Mysteries are solved, questions are answered, and actions are (somewhat) justified.  The stakes are higher than ever, with friends pitted against each other and alliances formed from the most unlikely combinations.  Through it all, Lukyanenko maintains his cerebral approach to storytelling, blending action, tension and philosophical exploration almost seamlessly and reminding us that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are rarely the simple constructs we assume them to be.

The novel opens with a murder in Edinburgh where the victim’s blood was drained.  While this would appear to signify a simple vampire attack, Anton Gorodetsky, newly elevated higher magician of the Night Watch, is once again dispatched to investigate.  What he finds in Scotland kicks off the largest conflict the magical world has seen since World War II.  A mad alliance of some of the most powerful Light and Dark Others are seeking a way to way to bring back the dead, but their quest may destroy everything in the process.

The strength of The Watches books has always been their grey approach to morality.  Here, Lukyanenko pushes that theme to the forefront with the alliance of a Dark Vampire, a Light Enchantress and a mage from the Inquisition, who ostensibly ride above the struggles of good and evil.  The core conflict shifts from the power brokering and subtle maneuvering of the first three books to an outright war between a collection of agitators and those who need to maintain the status quo. This change throws new light on Anton, his Night Watch and the entire sequence of events leading up to Last Watch.

As our window into these events, Anton’s sudden jump from mid-level agent to top-tier battle magician also changes our perspective on the new conflict.  His slightly maverick ideas suddenly have the weight of power but are still untarnished by the cynicism that plagues the upper echelons of both Watches.  In other words, he is an idealist, but one with enough common sense to balance his responsibility to his duty and his obligation to his morals.

While these core changes to Lukyanenko’s storytelling are refreshingly dynamic in a way that the series really needed to continue past Twilight Watch, some of the elements I’ve really come to enjoy from the books are noticeably absent.  The political jockeying of the Day and Night Watches takes a back seat to the more pressing concerns of a real crisis.  This missing intrigue has always been part of the draw to The Watches books, and its absence is noticeable, but not prohibitively bad.

Another minor problem is the sheer volume of callbacks to previous storylines.  Dozens of old characters and events are referenced or reintroduced to help tie up lose narratives, or justify them in the context of the final grand plot.  But all these references come at the price of less robust storytelling and a number of strong characters who languish in relative obscurity, including, once again, Anton’s wife and higher enchantress Svetlana.  Although Lukyanenko finally gets around to some gender balancing in the form of the brilliant and capable female antagonist running the show on the other side.

Ultimately, Last Watch is a different kind of story and required a different kind of style to tell it, so these complaints aren’t actually criticisms of the narrative (except for the Sevtlana one).  They are acknowledgments of Last Watch’s necessary departures from the familiar mold of the series, and a warning that die-hard fans might not be as comfortable with this entry.  It is still a phenomenal piece of urban fantasy and well worth the read.

As a coda, Lukyanenko’s references to Russian history and folklore prompted me to pick up a pretty solid collection of Russian Magic Tales, which I am currently reading.  There is some fascinating material here, from Baba Yaga, the greatest of the wicked witch archetypes, to more modern, WWII era folklore that strides the enormous gap between fairytales and ghost stories.  More importantly, these stories illuminate some of the very ‘Russian’ ideas that permeate The Watches books.  I probably won’t do a full review of Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov, but I will give it a stamp of recommended reading if you really enjoy Sergei Lukyanenko’s works.

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Posted on July 11, 2014, in Cannonball Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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