Timur Bekmambetov’s adaptation of Sergei Lukyanenko’s novel Night Watch (of the book’s first third, to be precise), was one of my favorite movies from last year. Breathtakingly paced, and with an original visual style that made up for the not-always-original story, the movie was intelligent eye candy.
I wanted to like the source novel as much as the film adaptation, but while it’s good, it’s not as original as it claims to be or stylish as it wants to be. Lukyanenko has some good ideas and at times some powerful scenes, but the book’s flaws keep it from being the modern fantasy classic that it strives to be.
Set in modern-day Russia, when the forces of Light and Dark have formed a truce, Night Watch follows a magician named Anton who works for the titular agency, which was formed by the forces of Light to help keep the truce in balance. (The forces of Dark have their own agency, the Day Watch, which makes sure the forces of Light don’t violate the truce.) The Watches’ work isn’t, for the most part, about apocalyptic battles and grand quests – it’s about making sure vampires don’t feed off more than their allotted quota of victims or about making sure Light magicians don’t do unauthorized “remoralizations”. Then in the course of his work, Anton discovers a woman haunted by a curse, a vortex that will bring destruction not just to her but to all of Moscow.
Night Watch creates an involving, credible world – a bit like the Harry Potter books in that it addresses the day-to-day realities of magic. (As the story unfolds the reader learns just how much of world events are influenced by the magical world.) It’s a uniquely Russian world, as well. The Communist regime is gone but its influence lingers, particularly in the bureaucracy that both Night Watch and Day Watch are beholden to.
As clever as the setting is, Night Watch suffers from several flaws. While it’s interesting to see the Night Watch organization from a low-ranking member (Anton isn’t a particularly powerful magician, and is happier with office work than being out in the field), Anton isn’t a very compelling character – interesting things happen to him but he himself is not interesting. The book has an episodic feel, lacking the large-scale conflict needed for the first book in a trilogy (Day Watch has recently been made available in the U.S., and Twilight Watch will presumably follow). The prose is occasionally trite and clunky, though this may be attributable to the translation (I had similar issues with another translated book, Natsuo Kirino’s Out). Most crucially, the three main stories in the novel are similar, leading to repetition and a certain predictability.
Still, Night Watch is worth reading. There are some remarkable scenes, particularly in the book’s second story, in which Anton and a female sorceress switch bodies with often-hilarious results, and in which we learn why it is not a good idea to visit other dimensions when you’re on top of a high tower. I’m interested to read the Day Watch book to see what Lukyanenko does with his premise and to find out if he’s able to turn this into the major fantasy work it wants to be.