The Night Watch: Fuzzy, but suspenseful and compelling

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSergei Lukyanenko Night WatchThe Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

Anton Gorodetsky is a magician-detective from Moscow’s Night Watch, an organization of light wizards and sorceresses that police the dark magicians. In spite of all the Night Watch’s claims about self-sacrifice and goodness, Sergei Lukyanenko’s urban fantasy takes place in a world that exists beyond the borders of good and evil. The light magicians are just as prone to illicit activities and there is a Day Watch that monitors the activities of wizards like Anton before they can go overboard in their attempts to save the world.

The Night Watch collects three short stories that together form the novel’s narrative arc. In each, Anton, an underdog detective, is tasked with stopping the forces of darkness with little more than his wits and his ingenuity. Fans of urban fantasy will struggle to resist Anton’s world of vampires, werewolves, and opaque magic systems, but the real strength of the series is the intrigues between the light and the dark.

However, look a little closer, and it’s difficult to make out the logic that underlies Lukyanenko’s world. Although Anton finds himself perpetually wondering what the difference is between the light and the dark, suggesting that this is a postmodern world in which there are no absolutes in which we can place our trust, Anton’s magic is drawn from an absolute magic source that manifests itself as a pure white flame. Frustratingly, Anton comes up with any number of explanations of what it means to be a light wizard, but he never overcomes his self-doubts, making for a somewhat adolescent confusion.

However, if the world that Lukyanenko has created suffers from its fuzzy details, it also benefits from the ambiguity. The cold war between the light and the dark in Moscow is a compelling premise and Lukyanenko has a talent for creating suspense through standoffs between the rival watches. And even if the world never feels complete, The Night Watch feels complete enough to keep the reader turning pages as Anton strives to save sorceresses, outwit dark wizards, and survive his boss’ intrigues and schemes.

~Ryan Skardal


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSergei Lukyanenko Night WatchThe forces of Light and Dark have sworn a treaty, so they live at peace. Anton is a member of the Night Watch, the group of Others who’ve joined the Light’s side and patrol the streets of Moscow at night to make sure that the Dark magicians are keeping their side of the bargain. During the daytime, the Day Watch does the same task for the Dark side. Meddling with the affairs of humans, for either good or ill, allows the other side to even the score so that Dark and Light are always kept in balance.

On one of his first street assignments, Anton tries to release a beautiful young woman named Svetlana from a dark curse hanging over her head. Later, he finds a couple of vampires who are trying to poach a young boy named Egor. Egor appears to have undiscovered powers of his own — he must be an unknown Other who still has to make a decision about whether to follow the Light or the Dark. The fates of both Svetlana and Egor seem important to the Day Watch. As Anton and the Night Watch try to protect them from the Dark, Anton worries about their destinies, and his own.

The translation of The Night Watch from Russian is incredibly smooth, resulting in a pleasant reading experience. Modern Moscow makes a terrific setting for an urban fantasy novel and Anton is a likable hero. I read Audible Frontiers’ version narrated by Paul Michael, who is perfect for the role of a tough but sensitive Muscovite (and who is now my second favorite audiobook reader).

While the writing, the setting, the characters, and most of the plot are quite enjoyable, there are a couple of related problems that kept The Night Watch from being the completely engrossing story that it had the potential to be. We get much of the story in first-person from Anton’s point of view and, while this made me really understand and like his character, it also means that we spend a huge amount of time listening to Anton trying to figure out what’s going on. He’ll brood for a while, then have an epiphany and give us an explanation (not always logical or believable) that he’s sure is right, but then suddenly he’ll be wrong and some other strange (and just as illogical or unbelievable) explanation will be given, which may or may not be correct. I chuckled toward the end of the book when Anton says this to himself:

I didn’t know. As always, I didn’t have enough information for analysis. I could have come up with thirty-three different explanations, all contradicting each other.

And I think he does come up with thirty-three different explanations, all contradicting each other. It gets really confusing and it interrupts the action but, worse, when we find out what’s really going on, it’s not nearly as exciting as it could have been. Most of the plot climaxes just fizzle when we find out the truth.

Related to this is the fact that I never quite believed in Sergei Lukyanenko’s world. The whole idea of a truce between Light and Dark and all the strange rules and ramifications that result seem extremely unlikely. In his interior monologues, Anton goes on at length about light and dark, destiny and fate — I’m not sure that it all made sense. I also didn’t understand some of the choices Anton made, especially at the end. Perhaps this will be cleared up in the sequels, but it’s annoying to not get the pay-off in this book.

But still, I enjoyed spending time in Moscow with Anton and his friends and enemies, even if I was confused about the plot. I just may pick up the next book, The Day Watch. I mean, I’ll download it from Audible. I am certain that Mr. Michael’s narration made me enjoy The Night Watch more than I would have if I had read it in print.

~Kat Hooper


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RYAN SKARDAL, with us since September 2010, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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4 comments

  1. These look like great books, and I think I’ll pick them up eventually. I must mention though that they are translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield. Bromfield deserves a lot of credit for helping bring these and other Russian fantasies to the states (Shadow Prowler). It’s hard to find Bromfield mentioned unless you actually look in the physical book, but his translations are quite exceptional and deserve some praise.

  2. That’s a good point, Justin. Thanks for point this out.

  3. This just came out in audio a couple of weeks ago, so I’ll be reviewing that version sometime in the next couple of months.

  4. I really liked this book. It was definitely different.

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