The Sunday Section: Book Review - The 'Watch' Series

This is a series of Russian books, by Sergei Lukyanenko, translated into English – the original trilogy of ‘The Night Watch’, ‘The Day Watch’ and ‘The Twilight Watch’, followed by ‘The Last Watch’.  There’s now a fifth book, ‘The New Watch’, which I haven’t read yet.  So this review is for the first 4 books.  

I’m not going to say much, if anything, in the way of plot – I love these books so much, I might inadvertently give something away if I start waxing lyrical about them.

What sparked my interest was that, apart from being in one of my favourite genres, fantasy/horror, it is set in Russia and is written by a Russian.  I think the books have been translated very well; nothing jarred or jolted me out of the story.

The basic premise is the universal fight between, not Good and Evil, but Light and Dark.  Living alongside normal human beings are ‘Others’, those with magical, supernatural powers – they choose to be either on the side of the Light or that of the Dark.  The forces of Light are basically magicians and sorceresses; the Dark is made up of vampires, werewolves, dark witches and dark sorcerers.  There are also shape-shifters on both sides.  Some humans can feel or sense these ‘others’; if any magic or supernatural force is used, humans, more or less, ‘choose’ not to see, and subconsciously give the ‘others’ a wide berth.

The organisations that police the ‘others’ are called the Night Watch for the Light, and the Day Watch for the Dark.  The Night Watch, as the name suggests, works during the night, while the Day Watch’s time is during the day.  If any ‘other’ commits a crime, they have to answer to either Watch.  Though they are basically ‘enemies’, both Watches observe an uncomfortable, fragile truce.  Both are willing to pursue their own agenda to strengthen their own side – the Dark may have the advantage there as they don’t necessarily put humanity first, but the Light, for obvious reasons, cannot, must not jeopardise humanity.  Keeping an eye on both Watches is the Inquisition, made up of Dark and Light ‘others’ working together.

The stories in all four books are told from the point of view of Anton Gorodetsky, a Night Watchman, a Light Magician who, in the beginning, lacks experience and isn’t that powerful.  Each book is divided into three sequential stories – to begin with, I was left wondering what each story had to do with the other, but by the third one, the threads of each story are pulled closer and deftly woven to form a satisfyingly complete piece.  And, again, each book builds and adds to the overall story that concludes in the fourth book.  Having said that, the story does reach a pleasing conclusion in the third book; I think it says a lot for Mr Lukyanenko’s skill as a writer that he has neatly written another conclusion, as it were, that still works, in the fourth book.

The characters are all well-written, all interesting, all believable – where, at first, they may come across a little two-dimensional, as the book(s) progress, they are fleshed out, each possessing qualities of light and dark, just like people.  Worth a mention also are the settings, namely, Moscow – he’s written the city so well, from clubs to the streets to the subway, right down to the Soviet-era buildings and the effect these have on the city’s inhabitants ... as if the architecture itself exudes the atmosphere of that time.

Even though the setting is contemporary, Mr Lukyanenko still retains the ‘fantasy’ feel – he makes the use of magic, the way the vampires and werewolves live, all believable by not getting bogged down in over-the-top explanations.  And yet, the little bits of explanation that pepper the narrative are just enough to make things clearer without destroying the magic.

One of the things I enjoyed – Anton tends to listen to a lot of music throughout the stories, and Mr Lukyanenko includes the lyrics, which, to me, adds to the narrative. 

What I like best about the world of the ‘others’ is the ‘twilight’ – miles better than the other ‘Twilight’, in my opinion ;)  A realm that exists parallel to the one we inhabit, it basically feeds off happiness and grief, and is one that only the ‘others’ have access to.  ‘Others’ who die disappear into the ‘twilight’.  The way the ‘others’ access the ‘twilight’ is ingenious, a simple yet effective idea – they literally call up their shadow and step into the ‘twilight’.  It reminds me of a Siberian belief that traditionally believed in several worlds, usually 3, 5 or 7, stacked one on top of the other.  Our world is the middle one; the upper worlds are usually the realms of good spirits, while the lower worlds often contain evil spirits.  But in the ‘twilight’, the different levels are in a downward direction, and each subsequent level is that much more difficult to access; there is a danger of getting stuck in a level if the ‘other’ is too weak, magically or physically, to travel back up and step out of the ‘twilight’.  Things appear differently in that realm, and the deeper down one goes, the more ‘true’ the form of the person or even an inanimate object becomes; for example, the features of a vampire who appears like a normal human being in our world starts to change in the ‘twilight’ to look more cadaverous with exaggeratedly long teeth … It’s so cleverly done.

Even though these books come under the ‘fantasy/horror’ genre, they also read like a Cold War thriller complete with the subtle misdirection, the manoeuvring, both agencies striving to outwit the other … the heads of the agencies – Gesar and Zabulon – are true masters of subterfuge.  And the humour ... like the Russian novels and short stories I've read, Mr Lukyanenko scatters humorous moments throughout the story; I'd find myself laughing out loud during unexpected moments. 

The stories aren’t clear-cut Black vs. White – the Light represents order, obligation and ‘doing the right thing’, the Dark is mainly about putting the individual’s freedom first.  Mr Lukyanenko has his characters take these qualities to the limit, and the distinction between the two sides becomes blurred … one begins to question exactly where the line of demarcation is as the Light and the Dark merge.

Having tied things up so neatly in ‘The Last Watch’, I’m intrigued as to where the story will go next in 'The New Watch'.  I hope it is as satisfying a read as the first four … when I’ve read it, I’ll probably write a separate review for it.