The Night Watch
The Day Watch
both by Sergei Lukyanenko

William Heinemann, 2006, 10.99, 489pp
ISBN 978-0-434-01412-5

William Heinemann, 2007, 11.99, 489pp
ISBN 978-0-434-01443-9

See also my review of The Twilight Watch This review first appeared on Sci-Fi London
‘Sergei Lukyanenko – who the hell’s he?’, I hear you ask. If I told you his Night Watch trilogy had sold over two million copies would that help at all? Uh-huh, OK. And I presume you’ve heard of Nochnoy Dozor (Night Watch), the surprise Russian box office smash of 2004? Excellent! Well, that film was based on the first book of Lukyanenko’s Night Watch trilogy, and there’s a second film, Dnevnoy Dozor (Day Watch), completed and awaiting release over here.

But the book of the latest film has just been released in English, and if, like me, you found Night Watch quite a difficult film to follow at times then it’s just possible these books might help…

Both are collections of three stories, all over 150 pages long - which makes them novellas, in my, er, book (and capable of surviving if published individually, but this format is certainly more convenient, if a little tiring on the wrists). The common thread running through them all is that they follow one or other of the Moscow ‘Watches’: the Day Watch and the Night Watch. The Watches have been set up by the Others, powerful supernaturally-endowed humans who live amongst us. The Others come in many different forms: magicians, witches, werewolves, vampires – you name it. If there’s a myth or legend about it then it’s probably down to an Other of some kind. The Others are also more straightforwardly divided into forces of Light and Dark, and the two sides have been at war with each other for millennia, unbeknown to ordinary humans such as you and I.

The Watches were set up early in the 20th century, following the establishment of a Treaty amongst the Others. Sick of the endless fighting and bloodshed, both sides have established an uneasy peace known as the Treaty. It’s not a perfect system by any means, and has as its upholders the two Watches – think of them as supernatural police forces. Somewhat confusingly, the Night Watch is composed of Light Others, and ensures that the Dark Others abide to their side of the Treaty; the Day Watch is composed of Dark Others and polices the Light Others.

The Treaty strictly, but fairly, limits what each side can and cannot do, e.g. how many sick puppies Light magicans can save, against how many victims Dark vampires can suck the blood of. And, much as with Newton’s Third Law, every action, whether Good or Evil, Dark or Light, requires an opposite action. So, if a Dark vampire goes on a bloody binge then the Night Watch are allowed to do a similar amount of good (loads of puppies saved, say, or a nurse saved from a car crash), but if a Light shapechanger suddenly goes mad, spreading happiness all around, then the Day Watch are entitled to make sure another season of Big Brother gets commissioned.

As I say, it’s not a perfect system, and most of the stories in these two books, whilst undeniably fantastic in their subject matter (following supernatural entities around contemporary Moscow) deal, at their core, with real philosophical and moral dilemmas. Certain questions continually resurface throughout, such as: how can the Night Watch be on the side of Light if a fundamental part of their job is to make sure that Dark Others can go about their Dark business unmolested?

The first story of The Night Watch, ‘Destiny’, which is the basis of the film Night Watch, is the most straightforward of all the stories here, showing us the strategic pulling and pushing between the Watches, the continual game to gain some kind of decisive advantage over the other without actually breaking the rules of the Treaty. If you’re a big fan of the film then I heartily recommend reading this story, even if you give the rest a miss, as it makes the film far more coherent and enjoyable.

Most of the stories follow inexperienced Night Watch magician Anton Gorodetsky as he finds his feet working for the Watch. In many ways The Night Watch is like a police procedural novel: we’ve got the rookie cop – er, I mean, Light Other - learning the ropes, solving crimes, protecting and serving, etc., only with a vivid sheen of supernatural colour covering everything. In ‘Of His Own Kind’, the second story, the moral ambiguity of the Treaty becomes more apparent, and from now on all of the stories question the wisdom of the Treaty in one way or another. It seems to be, to paraphrase Churchill, the worst possible system – except for all the others.

Having been largely convinced of the rightness of the Night Watch, it’s intriguing to then read the second book, The Day Watch, which reverses our perspective, in that the story is told from the point of view of the Day Watch. I wasn’t convinced by the Dark’s arguments, but it’s certainly interesting to hear why they don’t see themselves as ‘Evil’ – quite the contrary – and why they find the Light Others so repellent. No one quite says it, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions…

On the downside, all of these stories are longer than they really need to be, and in places they can be rather ponderous and repetitive, but all contain some good solid storytelling and more than a couple of surprising twists. It’s something of a different writing style than anything I’ve come across before – very formal, which might be due to the original Russian or the translation, it’s difficult to say (there is a vaguely amusing translation error on p. 81-2 of The Night Watch, when one character is looking for advice about vampires and turns to his video collection and comes across Night Of Terror, which must have been translated from English into Russian and then back into English, as the film’s title is actually Fright Night).

Engaging, thought-provoking and original, these books will send you straight back down the DVD rental shop to see Night Watch again and then leave you impatient to see Day Watch at the cinema - when it finally arrives!
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