Thursday, 4 January 2007

Sergei Lukyanenko: The Night Watch (1998)

Published: William Heinemann, 2006
Translated: Andrew Bromfield, 2006

There seem to be a lot of good vampire novels around at the moment. Soon after The Historian, I was able to pick up The Night Watch in my local library. Strictly speaking, this Russian publishing sensation has been available for almost a decade, but despite huge sales in Lukyanenko's home country, it is only in 2006 that an English translation has appeared. That one has now come out is something of a guarantee of quality, as very few modern novels seem to be translated into English each year. The cultural dominance of the English language is such that bookshops all over the world are full of translations from English: perhaps only in the Middle East and China will this not be the case. Clearly, though, English speakers seem not to be too keen on translations, which makes the quality of the rare exceptions such as Lukyanenko or Henning Mankell even more obvious.

This is the first novel in a quartet of novels (the final volume was published in 2006, and so the blurb for The Night Watch describes itself as part of trilogy). The story, divided into three parts with fairly separate adventures (so that The Night Watch is effectively a trilogy itself), concerns Anton, a systems engineer who has discovered that he is an Other, a human who can sense and use the magic of the shadowy world which underpins our own and which is known as the Twilight. He is a junior member of the Night Watch, the body set up by the Light to watch over the Dark Ones, to ensure that the fragile equilibrium in the Cold War between Light and Dark is not broken. A similar body, the Day Watch (also the title of the second book) maintains the equilibrium from the other side. At the beginning of first part Destiny, Anton is sent on a mission (a mistake, he feels, for he is not a field agent): he is to find and stop a vampire who is killing people - something forbidden by the Treaty. While on his way, he tries to help a young woman he meets by chance on the Moscow subway who is under a curse (he can see it as a black cloud hanging over her head), and by doing so precipitates something very much bigger than his original task.

The Cold War analogy is really very apt: The Night Watch is very like a John le Carré spy novel, full of people doing questionable things for a cause they more or less believe is right, where the equilibrium itself becomse more important than morality. This cynical view of the world is particularly easy for the characters in Lukyanenko's novel to fall into, because the two sides (like communism and capitalism) do not simply equate to good and evil. Instead, they embody the acceptance of the duty to help others as opposed to the need for freedom, including the freedom to be selfish. The Night Watch is a spy thriller with supernatural trimmings, and it is very well done indeed. The issue, whether it is right or necessary for individuals to act against the ideals governing their society in order to protect that society is very much alive in these days of illegal wiretapping, of CCTV cameras on every corner, where there is less and less privacy from government to protect us from the threat of terrorism. (It is an issue that is, for example, at the heart of most episodes of fashionable TV drama Spooks.) What makes this novel feel as though it is looking back to John le Carré and Len Deighton is the way that each mission that Anton is sent on is hiding bigger, complex and underhand schemes: he is never told the real point of what he is doing. (A sure recipe for inducing paranoia and cynicism.) The stories are given depth through these multiple layers, like an onion. The characters here are also like Len Deighton's: you can measure how long someone has been a member of the Night Watch by their cynicism.

The Night Watch has been talked about for ages among fantasy fans: now it is available in English, and definitely lives up to expectation.

1 comment:

Simon McLeish said...

I've now attempted to read the second book in this series, The Day Watch. This I found dull, uninvolving and boring to the extent that I only made it to the fifth chapter. So it seems that The Night Watch is a fluke.