Fiction Reviews

The Sixth Watch

(2014 /2016) Sergei Lukyanenko, William Heinemann, £16.99, hrdbk, 391pp, ISBN 978-1-785-15030-2


If you have never heard of Sergei Lukyanenko then it is most likely – if not a certainty – because you are not a Russian SF/F reader. However Sergei Lukyanenko is big in Russia and the Russian Federation (former USSR) nations, and when I say 'big', I mean 'BIG'.  Assuming you do not know of Sergei Lukyanenko he is effectively Russia's J. K. Rowling for adults at least as far as his 'Watch' series of books is concerned: he has written other fantasy and fantasy-horror for which he is well known in the Russian speaking nations and especially (of course) their SF/F/H fan communities.  Now, I say 'for adults' not to be disparaging to Rowling or her readers, but because some of the themes Sergei Lukyanenko regularly includes are corruption, crime (many sorts), violence, the occasional mention of female abuse and other subjects that J. K. Rowling simply could not include has her books are very much for children as well as older readers: conversely Sergei Lukyanenko's books in this series are firmly for adults albeit that older teenagers that are not particularly sheltered can equally enjoy them.

This is not the first 'Watch' novel and, while you can jump in here, you might be best advised starting with The Night Watch (which has been turned into a film – though the novel is far, far better): this is the sixth novel in the 'Watch' series and so its title is apposite.

The basic set-up is this. Wizards, demons, witches, vampires etc., are all real. Some humans have magical abilities while most are what Rowling would call 'muggles'. Surrounding us all is a kind of astral plane called the Twilight. But here is the kicker. Not only are there 'good' (comparatively selfless) and 'bad' (comparatively selfish) magicians but their existence forms opposing forces that have to be kept in balance for the sake of all. The consequence of this is that both the 'light' and the 'dark' forces, as they are known, need to be in balance and so the 'Watches' are created: the Night Watch of light observes and kind of polices those of the dark, while the Day Watch of the dark forces do the same monitoring those of the light.

Anton Gorodetsky is now a seasoned 'other' with magical abilities and quite senior in the middle-management of the Night Watch's Moscow office. He is (now) married and has a very powerful and increasingly talented, magical young daughter. But it becomes clear that a series of vampire attacks on Moscovites is actually a message for Anton and specifically a warning. Then the school Anton's daughter is attending – and which in theory is being protected by both the forces of light and dark – is attacked. Anton's daughter survives but it is clear that there is a third party of extreme power now in the game. Zabulon, the Moscow leader of the Day Watch and Gesar, his counterpart and Anton's boss of Moscow's Night watch, team up in an uneasy alliance. Yet this new force may even be too much for the combined forces of Light and Dark. As investigations proceed, things seem to point to some connection with the now extinct Sixth Watch of old…

The Sixth Watch is a rollicking, urban fantasy with thriller elements with plenty of mystical zeal, that draws on many fantasy tropes. Furthermore, as with the other titles in this series, it is firmly rooted in the present and (unsurprisingly) grounded in a Russian perspective. This last accounts for some of the story's gritty nature: life in modern Russia – even for its so-called – middle classes – has a more brutal edge compared to its western European and N. American counterparts: whether or not you think it right or wrong, the notion of 'safe places', equality (of various types – you take your pick), and other such that abound in the contemporary West's SF/F/H communities – are simply laughably naive to those living in today's Russian federation; Russian citizen's simply do not have the rights in reality (even if they do in theory) that westerners enjoy and it is a genuine fear of folk slipping from comfortably getting by into real poverty due to business or political corruption and crime.  For example, I recall when at the 2006 Eurocon in Kiev us western fans were shown the flick-knives and blades our sweet middle-class teenage student translators carried for protection (and which were quite often given to them by their parents), something that is unheard of in the privileged classes in Britain where carrying such weapons is against the law. Life is different there and this shines through these novels: it is not simply put their for added colour.

Nonetheless, such has been the turbulence and diversity of political thought that currently abounds in Russia that Sergei Lukyanenko does at times tread carefully but the western reader might still pick up on sensitive areas. An illustrative example at one point is when a character says '"Communism was a stupid idea though," said Zabulon keeping his voice low to avoid unnecessary argument'. Such points are made succinctly and often, as here, signalled that they are controversial so leaving it up to individual readers (whose views will undoubtedly differ) as to whether or not they agree.

The Sixth Watch came out in Russia in 2014 but 2016 marks its first outing in English. The translation much better than first novel, and the text flows smoothly. I do not know if the publisher invested more in the translation as previous books have been reasonably successful in Britain (albeit not they are not nearly as big over here as in Russia), or because a few years on the translator – Andrew Bromfield – has honed his skills; certainly others reckon he has given SF sound service as this year (2016) he garnered a Eurocon Award for best Translator.

As with the previous books in the 'Watch' series, this one is divided into three parts. However, where as the earlier books' parts were almost sufficiently distinct (all be they connected) to be considered almost separate-but-connected novelettes, with The Sixth Watch the parts are far more integrated into a whole. This last makes for a fine final 'Watch' offering a sound conclusion to the series that has taken Anton from becoming first aware of his embryonic abilities, through being an skilled magician, to having a family of his own with a gifted heir. Indeed it does appear that this novel is the last in the series, though there is scope (should Lukyanenko wish it) for their be further stories set in this world.

If you have not come across the 'Watch' series but you are into magical fantasy and fantastical thrillers, then you have a real treat in store for you with these novels.

Jonathan Cowie

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