Fiction Reviews

The New Watch

(2012 Russian / 2013 English) Sergei Lukyanenko, William Heinemann, £16.99, hrdbk, 404pp, ISBN 978-0-434-02231-1


Anton Gorodetsky is an 'Other', a human with mystical abilities, who can see a superimposed dimension on our own – the 'twilight', and who can handle basic magic. He is part of a parallel community to human society of 'Others'. But some 'Others' are 'Light' and some 'Dark'. This distinction is not a straightforward 'good' or 'evil', it is more of one as to whether the Other in question uses their abilities in an overtly self-serving way or with regard to others who may then acknowledge this mutually. Nonetheless, these two different philosophical and way-of-life approaches are so marked that Light and Dark Others come into conflict: this conflict has been going on for ages. Long ago, the Others realised the futility of such an on-going war be it colder and hotter at times. And so a treaty came about whereby Light Others would monitor Dark Others with teams called 'The Night Watch' while the Dark others would monitor Light Others through their counterpart Day Watch.  All well and good…

Anton is at Moscow airport seeing someone off when he hears a child screaming at his mother that the plane they are about to catch is about to crash! Anton has stumbled upon a prophet: an Other with the power to foretell the future! With the disaster averted Anton senses another force. It transpires that a police officer on duty at the airport has been mystically interfered with. Someone, or something, it seems is after the child prophet.

And then there are tales of a powerful creature who comes after prophets so as to stop them speaking out their first – their most powerful – prediction. This something is now after the child.

Soon after the Moscow Night Watch who are looking after the Child are attacked and even the help of the Day Watch does not seem to provide adequate protection. Anton must investigate and in the course of this travels to London to see another, an older, prophet as well as further afield in Asia.

This is the fifth volume of Sergei Lukyanenko's (Sergey Lukyanenko or even Sergey Lukianenko) 'Night Watch' sequence but be rest assured that you can dive right on in and soon pick things up. This series of novels is extremely popular in Russia and the former Soviet states and all told their hardback sales alone have topped two million! The series have spawned some films, though I have to say that I really did not like the first cinematic offering Night Watch though I hear (and have got but not watched such is the memory of my experience of the first film) the second film, Day Watch which apparently is better.

The earlier books are though rather good and certainly any reader of urban fantasy will want to check them out. These include The Night Watch (first published in Russia in 1998 and in Britain in 2006) and The Day Watch (first published in Russia in 1998 and then in Britain in 2007).  This novel, The New Watch, was first published in Russia in 2012 and we now have it in the British Isles in 2013: so the English language editions are coming out quicker. This brings me on to the translation. It has to be said that it clunks every couple of pages or so. At first I tend to stumble at these points but soon got into the habit of ploughing on. The best way to view it is as if you are listening to a Russian with very good English but who occasionally says something in a clumsy way: you can understand what is being said and good manners stops you correcting the error. In short, it is possible to make the occasional translation glitches work for you and add to the ambience of this being a Russian tale. Having said that, at just one or two points I really would have liked a footnote as clearly there was something being referenced that was common knowledge to Russians (some folklore, popular culture, etc.) but clearly was unknown to the average westerner. However, this too can add to the sense of this being foreign fantasy and there is nothing wrong with that.

In addition to the 'Watch' sequence of novels, Sergei Lukyanenko has written over a score of others, mostly fantasy but a few stray into SF. And the author is simply huge in Russia. This is literally Russia's J.K. Rowling but for adults and with a wider literary oeuvre. Now I do not mean to disparage Rowling's 'Harry Potter' books but these really are juvenile fantasy for children and it is an achievement of J. K. that she can make them appeal to a wider audience including many adults. So that is fine. However Sergey's 'Watch' sequence is more adult. The world is grittier. There are some nasty criminals who occasionally make a brief appearance, some police are corrupt, people have their weaknesses (such as alcoholism), there is some poverty in the mix, and so forth. And then Sergei makes observations on life in general from the way eggs at breakfast should be served to the types of TV you find in some hotel bathrooms: J. K. R. simply doesn't do this. Sergei even references Rowling a couple of times in the book!  There is nothing wrong with the difference between J. K. Rowling and Sergei Lukyanenko: both are huge fantasy authors in their respective countries and it is a fact that they have their differences.  (Talking of observations, I did wonder about whether the sequences in London were based on a visit Sergei may have made but if so his hosts deprived him of the Peter Pan statue in the park near where The New Watch protagonist Anton stayed.)

Anyway, if you like mystical fantasy and urban fantasy, and you have not come across Sergei's 'Watch' books then I do urge you to try them out.

Jonathan Cowie

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