Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch series may already be familiar to English-language sci-fi fans. In 2004, these Russian bestsellers got two high-octane film adaptations directed by Timor Bekmambetov; the movies broke box office records in their home country and garnered a cult following in the US. The Night Watch books were brought stateside, but didn’t grab as much attention as they should have (I blame the covers) and the books eventually went out of print. I’m glad the series, beginning with Night Watch, is making a comeback, however, in a slick new package that is way more attuned to the series’ vibe.
The premise of the book may sound a bit tired—individuals known as “Others” are divided into Light and Dark magicians that square off in Moscow—but the way that Lukyanenko spins the material turns oft-used tropes and makes them into instantly readable and increasingly addictive books with every installment. Lukyanenko writes an engrossing urban fantasy with a spy thriller bent for those who like their protagonists hard-boiled and their plots seasoned with ethical dilemmas and political brinkmanship. In the first book of this series, he takes the reader on a long, dark subway ride of the soul—figuratively and literally.
The world of Night Watch is split between two rival organizations locked in a political stalemate: one monitors the forces of Darkness, and the other does likewise with the Light. Anton Gorodetsky is a disillusioned Light magician and agent of the Night Watch, who is barely clinging to his old idealism as he goes on his first field assignment. He’s on the hunt for vampires poaching humans without a license and encounters two Muscovites in unusual circumstances: Svetlana, woman with a curse upon her head strong enough to destroy the entire city if unleashed, and Egor, a boy with an undetermined magical destiny who nearly becomes vampire bait. Their destinies intertwine during three mini-arcs throughout the novel in ways that reveal the chess game antics that both organizations go through—and not always with the hope of safeguarding humanity in mind.
Anton is a modern-day Dostoyevsky protagonist, struggling in the post-Soviet drift while looking for purpose in his work that doesn’t involve being sucked into power plays. The Cold War analogy manifests itself in the entanglements and compromises that Anton makes in the line of duty (or, even more, the traps that he unwittingly plays a part in, no matter how much he struggles against them). I first read these books soon after I returned from living abroad in Moscow, so I admit I have a serious soft spot for all of the cultural references and the particular mindset that Anton has— well-meaning and likeable, often critical, but highly aware of personal stakes that motivate people to do what they have to in order to survive.
Light and Dark doesn’t equate to “Good” and “Evil” necessarily, but relate to how individuals use the power taken from the energy-sucking Twilight, a parallel dimension that exists simultaneously with ours. Much of the book is spent with characters arguing over the moral boundaries involved in fighting on one side versus the other: it’s a bit like flipping through an fantastical, philosophy-lite version of The Brothers Karamazov. None of the characters feel like metaphysical sock puppets, though, so these debates turn out to be quite enjoyable and up the tension when it comes to hunting down murderers and saving the destiny of humanity. I also appreciated the gender balance between characters, and the agency and importance female characters have in the story; my favorite is Olga, Anton’s centuries-old partner and a Great Sorceress.
Night Watch can easily be assumed to be a symbolic tale of the Russian Everyman in modern society, but that would cut short the fascinating world-building, darkly humorous plot points (including a gender-swap between Anton and a Olga in order to track down a serial killer), and intriguing character relationships. It is a spy thriller, a love story, and police procedural that goes down like a shot of Stolichnaya. The first volume’s ending is understated and abrupt, but it doesn’t detract from the book as a whole. The follow-up installments of the series will be coming out in short order: Day Watch will out in late January, Twilight Watch in March, and the newest book—previously unpublished before in the US—will pub in the second half of the year. For those looking for new reads in 2014, I highly recommend adding Night Watch to that list.
Night Watch is available December 31st from Harper Collins
Ay-leen the Peacemaker actually watched Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter because of Bekmambetov, though she does regret that. She works at Tor Books, runs the multicultural steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana, pens academic things, and tweets.