Fiction Reviews

The Night Watch

(1998/2006) Sergei Lukyanenko, William Heinemann, 10.99, trdpbk, 489pp, ISBN 978-0-434-01412-5


The Night Watch, by Sergei Lukyanenko, has taken the Russian SF and fantasy scene by storm. It has been made into a film that also has gone down very well and indeed won a 2004 ESFS Eurocon Award (for the adaptation to film of this novel) as well as in 2003 for 'Best Author'.

The Night Watch has all the hallmarks of a modern classic horror. Its contemporary setting that is clearly in a post Soviet Moscow, whose people have seen considerable change in recent years ensures it is a novel of our time. That it not only has fantastical creatures (vampires and werewolves) not to mention magicians and parallel dimensions, undeniably makes it a genre work. But what really sets it off is that it taps into a fundamental human dilemma as to what it is that separates good from bad in the mundane sense (as opposed to the extreme saintly versus evil sense). This exploration, which is almost certainly helped by the author being a qualified psychiatrist, is what gives it its depth. The book's rendition of good and bad is not simply black and white though, for purposes of plot tension, extreme evil is also there.

So what is the premise?

It transpires that since early humans evolved some had the ability to see into, and indeed enter, the twilight: a magical parallel dimension. People so blessed could also harness -- to varying degree according to ability and experience -- magical energies. However such 'others', as they are called, soon after they realise that they have these abilities either turn to the light or the dark. The light and dark are not strictly good and evil but -- at least at first -- more to do with whether an individual puts themselves first or the community to which they belong. And in this sense you can see how this may resonate with a post-communist society not that communism hugely benefited its communities unlike mixed economies (in the strict economic sense). This is not the Star Wars simplistic light versus dark side of the force which Lucas simply had as a plot device, though a superficial reading could lead to it being construed as such.

However both sides, Light and Dark, realise that there is little to be gained from waging a war against each other across eternity, and so long ago there was a treaty forged, and tensely maintained, between the two. The way it worked was that members of both sides could live their lives the way they wished but within clear limits determined by treaty. To ensure the treaty was upheld both sides had a 'Watch' that monitored the other. And so the 'Night Watch' is run by Light Others to monitor the Dark Others who in turn have their own 'Day Watch'. All the while this goes on human life continues obliviously.

The book, rather this English edition of The Night Watch, is actually a compilation of three stories. (Confusingly the press release accompanying the review copy says that included are the stories The Day Watch and The Dusk Watch but actually these are other 'novels' in a trilogy and that presumably each 'novel' contains its own sections/parts or stories.)

The protagonist is Anton a young 'Other' whose abilities though recognised are developing. He is a member of the Night Watch albeit a junior one. In the first story within this first The Night Watch novel, Anton discovers a girl who unknowingly is cursed with something so frightful that when it will finally become realised not only will she suffer but it might be manifest by something of the order of an atomic bomb detonation or an asteroid strike: so all of Moscow is at risk.   The second story concerns an uninitiated Other who does not realise what is going on but does know that he can sense evil people (Dark Others) and so kills them. The Watches realise that something is going on but do not know what and at first the evidence suggests that Anton may be the culprit.   In the final book Anton in his own mind struggles to rationalise his future and relationships with those close to him. Meanwhile a delivery is made to the Head of Moscow's Night Watch but there is an assassination attempt on the courier who only survives because his decoy is killed instead. The item delivered could determine the future fate of the all Others.

The Night Watch is clearly an important book. Not only is it written in a straightforward style, making it accessible to many, it has a surprising depth even if it is not one of fantasy horror's most sophisticated works. This explains its critical acceptance in Russian-speaking Europe and the ease with which it has apparently (I have not seen it) been transferred to the big screen: a development that has further assured its recognition among readers of the former Soviet nations.

So we come to the English edition. Now I have to make it clear from whence my take on this comes. I do not read Russian and so I cannot make a direct comparison. However I have been somewhat active for over a decade within the European community and worked with a number of fans and SF groups belonging to three or four Central European countries (even if so far I have only attended one convention in a Russian-speaking country). I therefore am very aware of the debates surrounding book translation issues. I mention this because I am a little uneasy about The Night Watch's translation. The prose clunks a little; enough at any rate for me to find it noticeable and mildly irritating.

I am not going to dissect the entire book which would clearly be impossible within the constraints of a review. But here is the first paragraph.

'The escalator strained slowly upward. In an old station like this, what else would you expect? But the wind swirled like a wild thing inside the concrete pipe -- ruffling his hair, tugging the hood off his head, sneaking in under his scarf, pressing him downward.'

Yet a little thought with regards the order and choice of the wording does make, to my mind, a noticeable difference. For example 'ruffling' hair to me is something that an adult does to a child's hair and is a conscious if not friendly act. 'Dishevelling' does not have this connotation even if both words convey a disturbing of hair. Yet again, 'concrete pipe' may well be a literal translation fro the Russian but in English the word tunnel as a portal for human transportation is far more appropriate especially as pipes generally are far narrower than tunnels and the escalator tunnels to Moscow metros are big. To my mind the following would read better even if it may not be as literal a translation.

'The escalator slowly strained upward. In an old station what else could you expect? But the wind swirled, a wild thing even inside the concrete tunnel, dishevelling his hair, tugging the hood away from his head, sneaking under his scarf, and pressing him back.'

Other examples are numerous but to take a sentence from a later paragraph (bottom of page 43).

'Or rather, lying in ambush for me, hoping the hunter would turn into the hunted beast.'

To my mind the following reads far better. 'Or rather, lying in ambush, hoping the predator would become prey.'

In terms of the translation debate, meaning and atmosphere being conveyed takes priority over a more literal translation that runs foul of idiomatic obstacles.

Anyway I have gone to some length to explain my comments as I know that some will disagree even though many will sympathise. I should also point out that even though I feel that the translation provided could have done with an edit (sub-editing skills being greatly different from those of translation), the translator is not to blame. Such books do require a sub-editor. Indeed there is little excuse for this in the days of Microsoft Word and 'track changes' as a subber can give a track changes manuscript back to the translator to check that the original meaning has not unduly been sacrificed. I should equally point out that some countries (mentioning no names) that have attempted to translate novels out of their own language into English have failed miserably. I have half a dozen such works on my shelves whose translation is so idiomatically literal that they are quite unreadable! Fortunately Night Watch is perfectly understandable albeit that the prose is, as mentioned, a tad cumbersome.

No, my gripe in this instance is the way Heinemann have produced this edition. Good on them certainly for bringing this to an English readership but I do think that they have skimped on the editing, not to mention the binding. After just one reading the spine is heavily creased and far more so than nearly all other trade-paperbacks read just once on my shelves. This is a shame for the front cover has a nifty design.

Another deficiency is the lack of the sort of basic book information. For example it would be helpful if the back or a forward explained that this work is part of a trilogy. A mini biography of the author would also have been helpful. This is doubly important for a book whose author and his works are not well known in the UK.

So why am I making such heavy weather of all this? Well I am fairly certain that demand for this book will grow: in fact I would be surprised if it has not already done quite well. So I would like to see a better edition and I know that Heinemann can do this. Indeed page footnotes on some of the cultural and geographic references in the text would really be very welcome by an Anglophone readership wishing to have a similar reading experience to their Russian counterparts. Do not forget that they immediately understand and take such references in their stride. So Heinemann, are you up for this?

As for this review's nominal bottom line, I would firmly recommend Sergei Lukyanenko's book to English fantasy-horror readers. My advice would be to (reluctantly) get this edition now to see what all the fuss is about. Then, should you enjoy it, if some inspired editor decides (or -- to be fair to the editor of this version-- is given the finance) to produce a more developed edition in the future then get that too and pass this first one along to spread the word. Meanwhile to Sergei I would say that now that you have established your self outside of Eastern Europe you might instruct your agent to gently but firmly ensure that there is some above minimum level of control as to the standard to which your work is released in the West. Meanwhile for my money I hope to get to see the Russian film of the book.

To publishers I would ask why on Earth do you wait for books like Sergei's to surface by themselves? There is a wealth of untapped foreign SF and fantasy out there. True, discerning the excellent from the far more profligate dross is difficult, especially without the huge expense of translation. But then that is exactly why commissioning editors should be going to the Eurocon (when held outside of the British Isles) and seeking out a score or more of well read foreign fans on an individual basis so to ask them what recent hard SF, fantasy or whatever, in their country has caused a stir and to whom do they appeal. You will soon find -- no big surprise here -- that the same authors and titles reoccur. (You may also enjoy the touristy side of Eurocons.)

OK. That's enough now. Next...

Jonathan Cowie

Here is a review of The Day Watch.

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