The Night Watch: Primarily about human relationships

fantasy book reviews The Night Watch by Sean StewartThe Night Watch by Sean Stewart

Sean Stewart is one of those writers I used to buy sight unseen (before he unfortunately dropped out of writing novels and decided to devote his time to writing interactive online games). His books tend to be very character driven, something I personally like, and he has an individual writing style that manages to be “writerly” without getting bogged down in stylistic tricks.

The Night Watch is the story of a future earth in the year 2074 after an inundation of magic has flooded the world (this flood started soon after WWII in Stewart’s timeline) and only pockets of human civilization are left in the sea of wild and magical frontiers (in this the story can be seen as a member of the same universe as Stewart’s Resurrection Man and Galveston). The novel concentrates on two societies, the Southside, which is a relatively technological and militaristic state located where Edmonton used to be and Chinatown, located in the appropriate region of Vancouver. The former community has made a Faustian deal with the spirits that haunt the Northside in return for the opportunity to be left alone, while the latter lives in the midst of its spirits, especially the three godlike and archetypal beings — the Dragon, the Lady and the Monkey — and the beastlike barbarians (magically mutated humans from the initial magical explosion).

Following the lives of several intertwined groups of characters from each community, Stewart examines the dynamics of these two opposing points of view in an era where the high tide of magic is finally starting to recede and, as ever, human machinations and politics attempt to take advantage of the situation.

Stewart manages to populate his world with many interesting, and realistic, characters. None of them are painted in black-and-white terms and even the “villains” have realistic motivations that point to a multi-faceted melding of both self-interest and even love of community. The real star of the book for me, though (even with Stewart’s finely realized and well-drawn characters) was the world itself. It is a world we can recognize, and yet at the same time it is completely alien. The small enclaves of humanity fighting for survival in a world that can barely be understood in the rational terms humanity had been wont to apply to it before the “Dream” overtook them are intriguing reflections of both humanity’s ever-present willingness to fight against the odds, as well as an acknowledgment of the myriad of ways in which this can be done. In many ways I felt that Stewart had managed to capture the air of the medieval romance (in terms of world-building if not in style or content) with the minor “kingdoms” of humanity placed in the midst of the ever encroaching “wild wood”… a place where demons and ghosts walked and adventures or power might be bought, though at a very high price. The lure of the dream-world is always in contention with the obligations and comforts of human society.

I also like the way in which Stewart paints magic. It is a wild and largely uncontrollable force, though as mentioned certain deals can be made with it in exchange for ability or power. It seems to me to be an appropriate way to look at something that truly is the reverse of “science” in that while magic does follow certain rules these are more along the lines of adhering to agreements and obligations than being a cookie-cutter “physics of magic” where spells of fireball or lightning can be produced given the proper reagents and incantation. It is a force that is mysterious and wild, in that sense at least it mirrors nature, though it cannot be easily understood or defined by rules of cause and effect in any systematic way.

The story itself deals with the beginning, and dissolution, of relations between the Southside and Chinatown as we see the leaders from each community vying for power and control. In the midst of this the heir to Southside’s virtual king must make a choice that will determine not only her own future and safety, but that of her people and one of the “heirs” to a great power of Chinatown must come to terms with her place in the world and her familial relationships as well. The Night Watch, like all of Stewart’s work, is primarily about human relationships. He examines how they grow, and end, in the midst of stress and change. He also looks at the price they exact upon us and the give-and-take that must be accepted in our attempts to balance our personal and individual desires with our public and communal responsibilities.

All in all The Night Watch is a great book. It’s a well-written story of human relationships set against a backdrop of conflict and magic in a world that could almost, but not quite, be our own.

FanLit thanks Terry Lago for contributing this guest review.

The fabulously acclaimed “Resurrection Man” uncovers a world where the horrors of modern war and technology have given rise to magic. Now the magic returns in “The Night Watch” — and nothing will ever be the same.

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TERRY LAGO, one of our regular guest reviewers, is a Torontonian who, like all arts students, now works in the IT field. He has been a fan of fantasy ever since being introduced to Tolkien by his older brother when he was only a wee lad, though he has since branched out to enjoy all spectrums of the Fantasy genre and quite a few of the science fiction one as well. Literary prose linked with well-drawn characters are the things he most looks for in a book.

View all posts by Terry Lago (guest)

4 comments

  1. This is the second Stewart book I ever read, and it made me pick up Galveston without even reading the back cover. I am so sorry he has stopped writing novels. Like you, I appreciate his treatment of magic as a force of nature, like hurricanes, the ocean, or fire.

  2. I loved this book. I met Stewart at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts one year, at least a decade ago, and told him exactly that. He told me that he was very, very glad when he finished writing the scene in the airplane hangar because he was freezing to death writing it — even though it was perfectly warm in the room in which he was writing. I guess if you feel it that directly, you can write about it persuasively!

  3. I guess to some extent he’s a “writer’s writer,” like Doyle Bramhall is a guitarist’s guitarist — people who are loved and respected but never quite “break out” for some reason.

  4. Terry Lago (guest) /

    @Marion, Yes, I think Stewart may be the best fantasy writer I’ve come across in terms of his depiction of magic. To that end I’d recommend his only take on epic fantasy: _Clouds End_. I don’t think it was 100% successful as an epic fantasy, but it’s a great book, with yet another excellent take on magic.

    @Terry, I wish I could meet him, if only to yell at him for no longer writing fantasy novels! That scene is indeed great, I recall being able to feel the bone chilling cold myself. He had a great way with with words.

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