Fiction Reviews


The Day Watch

(1998/2007) Sergei Lukyanenko (with Vladimir Vassilyev), William Heinemann, 11.99, trdpbk, 487 pp, ISBN 978-0-434-0-1444-9

standard paperback format edition, Arrow, 7.99, ISBN 978-0-009-4-8993-1

 

This is the second in the 'Watch' series by Sergei Lukyanenko that has taken Russian-speaking nations by storm. This follow-up was written with the assistance of Vladimir Vassilyev who is a young but an established and respected SF and fantasy writer in his own right. The Day Watch was originally published in Russian in 1998 but this 2007 edition is its first British publication in English with translation by Andrew Bloomfield.

While it is true to say that the 'Watch' series has been hugely successful by Russian speaking nations, it is a bit like saying that Stephen King's Carrie was hugely successful among an English-speaking readership. It is like saying that because it is true though it suggests that the success lies in the fact that Carrie is a great horror novel. This also is true, and so is The Night Watch (the first in the 'Watch' series), but both these statements belay the fact that, like King, Lukyanenko has a huge reputation as a prolific and entertaining writer of many works of which the 'Watch' series are just a few. (Actually having met Sergei at the 2007 Eurocon I have discovered that there are more 'Watch' books following the trilogy currently being promoted in Western Europe.) Having said that, because the 'Watch' series is a a series of more than one work, so its stature is probably more akin to King's ''Tower' or 'Green Mile' series. Further still, and like the latter, there has been a Nightwatch film in Russia.

As with The Night Watch, The Day Watch concerns the present-day conflict of the two watches of the supernatural 'Others' who are magicians, vampires and werewolves. One Watch represents the forces of 'good' or 'Light' and the second watch the forces of 'Dark'. Using a term like 'good' is actually a little misleading as the difference between a 'light' and a 'dark' other is a little more subtle than that. Perhaps the best way to explain it is with the analogy of a British Member of Parliament (MP). There is a Parliamentarian adage that an MP owes his or her duty first to the constituency (the local voters) they represent, and then their political party, and then the country. The reason for this adage is that it is not always possible to prioritise matters in this way. Similarly a Dark Other is not evil per se but if it comes to using their supernatural power and someone inadvertently gets in the way then tough, that is their problem: Dark others do not begin the day with a view to doing 'bad' deeds but they do see it as a definite plus that they can use their abilities for their own (and their allies) benefit. Conversely a Light Other will be more concerned about how the use of supernatural powers will affect bystanders and normal human beings, and as such has not only a distinct moral difference from Dark Others but actually is against the thoughtless actions many Dark Others commit.

The Others, Dark and Light, have been with humanity through history and their conflict has lead to a stalemate, a state of balance. Both sides realise that an outright conflict or war between the two will be both damaging to Others in general as well as humanity. (Dark Others do value many aspects of normal human civilization such as the comforts of life that human civilization provides from which they can personally benefit.) And so there came a treaty with two 'Watches' set up to monitor the opposition and both Watches in turn policed by 'Inquisitors'. And so the Others are engaged in a 'cold war' fraught with mini-skirmishes and strategic manoeuvring.

The Day Watch follows on from The Night Watch and like The Night Watch contains three connected stories. Both centre around the activities of the Moscow Watches. However whereas The Night Watch looked at matters from the perspective of Light Others, The Day Watch mainly (but not exclusively) follows affairs from the viewpoint of Dark Others.

In the first story, following a battle with Light Others, a Moscow Dark others goes to a Ukrainian Black Sea resort to recuperate. There she falls in love. However, with her powers diminished following the battle, she initially fails to realise that her lover is in fact a Light Other. Can theire be a lasting relationship between Light and Dark others?

In the second story, an Ukrainian seems to recover from amnesia on a train arriving in Moscow. He begins to realise that he is a Dark other on a mission of which he only has some vague intuition. His arrival is equally a mystery to the Moscow Dark others in the Day Watch, and more unsettling to the Light Others in the Night Watch especially following a couple of run-ins.

In the final story, there is an inquisition (by those who arbitrate between the Watches) as to the goings on in the first two stories, and indeed some of the happenings in the earlier volume The Night Watch (so you do need to read these in sequential order). It transpires that the leading mages of the Moscow watches have been playing a long-term game trying to out manoeuvre each other as to the outcome of events some years to come. Going into more detail would constitute a spoiler.

Throughout the stories Sergei Lukyanenko conveys much of the Sov-Bloc view of the new consumerism beginning to emerge in Russia, the Ukraine and some of the other former Sov-Bloc nations, that is struggling to grow out of a formerly poorer (albeit more stable) economy. There is also the sense of the greater freedoms that former Soviet citizens now enjoy but who can only really enjoy it if they have the money, as well as the lawless aspects of that part of the world.

I do not want to make overall comments at this point (though I made some in my review of the first Night Watch), I would rather wait in case I review the final book. Having said that, this book is clearly an important work of contemporary Russian dark fantasy that is allegorical in many ways to that nation's recent historical circumstances. As such it is not only an entertaining casual read for those into fantasy but also an essential work for the shelves of any serious fantasy enthusiast.

As for the translation of this sequel, I felt it was better than that for The Night Watch, the prose for which seemed to clunk a little too much. Perhaps the translator was getting into his stride?

With regards to the possible forthcoming Hollywood film, apparently it is a dubbed version of the Russian film. I have since reviewing The Night Watch received decidedly mixed comments on the first Russian Night Watch film already out. Some really like it and others simply do not. Yet one should temper this with the knowledge that the Russian film industry has only had one and a half decades of the sort of freedom of expression it now enjoys and has only been slowly accruing the finance and so do not access the quantity and quality of resources of their western counterparts. (Also Hollywood -- and one presumes its Russian counterpart -- does turn out some right turkies: as exemplified by The Avengers and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen films.) Finally, I understand that the Russian film muddles up the Watch stories' order and broader sense even if it (might?) successfully capture Lukyanenko's world. Having said that, as noted, the recent news is that a Hollywood studio is distributing an edited and translated version of the Russian films and so may not necessarily do a re-make as the effects (especially of the second Russian film) are good. (Note: Depending on which part of the west you are these films may either appears as Night Watch and Day Watch or Night Patrol 1 and 2.)

With regards to Lukyanenko's other works. The first two Watch books do demonstrate to me that we really ought to see other of his top sellers over here (in the West). However what I would very much like is a compilation of the best of his short stories: he is a prolific writer and there is much from which to choose and an established body of critical acclaim and sales records to use in making the selection. Someone needs to get on this project. Meanwhile try the 'Watch' series out. If you like the first book then you will enjoy the second that builds a slightly bigger picture.

Jonathan Cowie


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