Hyperion, 1998, 455 pages
Set in modern day Moscow, Night Watch is a world as elaborate and imaginative as Tolkien or the best Asimov. Living among us are the "Others", an ancient race of humans with supernatural powers who swear allegiance to either the Dark or the Light. A thousand-year treaty has maintained the balance of power, and the two sides coexist in an uneasy truce. But an ancient prophecy decrees that one supreme "Other" will rise up and tip the balance, plunging the world into a catastrophic war between the Dark and the Light.
When a young boy with extraordinary powers emerges, fulfilling the first half of the prophecy, will the forces of the Light be able to keep the Dark from corrupting the boy and destroying the world?
While I'm not a fan of urban fantasy in general, Russian urban fantasy has its own distinct flavor, and offers something different from the usual tropes of American and British UF. Night Watch is very different from Vita Nostra and Age of Witches, by Marina and Sergey Dyanchenko, but I found all these books seem to present a different view of the human struggle, concerned more with ordinary (and extraordinary) people trying to hold onto their humanity in the face of a grim and relentless universe, and less concerned with magical pyrotechnics and orders of wizards and species of supernatural fauna, even if there are plenty of those.
Set in Moscow, Night Watch is about the two sides waging the ancient battle of good vs. evil. The "Others" are beings of supernatural power, born human but fated to be conscripted into one side or the other. The Light is made up of those who have chosen to defend humanity, while the Dark is made up of those who use their powers for selfish ends and prey on humans.
Except of course it isn't that simple. The Light and the Dark realized ages ago that if they ever really went to war, the result would be an apocalypse. Neither side wants Armageddon until they can be sure they will win. So they made a treaty limiting their intervention in human affairs. According to the terms of the treaty, any interference by one side allows an complimentary response by the other, measure for measure. If a Light magician saves a life, a Dark magician gets to take one. If a Dark magician uses her powers for evil, the Light gets to use that much power for some good project. Over centuries, they have negotiated these rules and the terms under which each side may go about its business, and the result is a sort of detente, while each side gathers power for the final showdown.
Each side is monitored by a "Watch" - the Light magicians are the Night Watch, because they watch what the Dark gets up to at night, while the Dark magicians of the Day Watch monitor the activities of the Light.
Night Watch is an episodic novel about Anton, a junior magician of the Light who comes up against the limits of his authority and what his side is permitted. He wants to do good and is continuously frustrated that even the smallest good deed means allowing the Dark to get away with something in exchange.
He counts as friends a family of vampires, even as he hunts vampires who kill humans illegally. Emphasis on illegally, because the Light still allows vampires to kill humans with proper permits.
The magicians of the Dark aren't all mustache-twirlingly evil, and the magicians of the Light can be bastards, but they are still standing on opposite sides of a war, and neither side is really happy with what they have to do, and what they have to allow, to maintain the truce.
The accommodations they have made to keep things running smoothly gives Night Watch its moral ambiguity. Their accommodation is called into question when, for example, an uninitiated magician of the Light, who knows nothing of the two sides or the ancient agreement, begins killing Dark magicians. Or when a child with great potential becomes a chip in the game, each side struggling to influence him, Anton's boss being no less devious and manipulative than his Dark counterpart.
I liked the slow chess game being played out by the two sides — there aren't a lot of wizard battles here, though there are some. The plot is more about moral quandaries and riddles of fate and destiny than who can win a supernatural throwdown.
Anton is slightly flat as a character, but this book still had a great Moscow noir feel.
Night Watch (2004)
The first book was made into a two-part Russian movie that seems to have been widely panned by critics and fans.
Available on Netflix with English subtitles, I thought it was actually not terrible, though it's not that good and probably wouldn't have interested me much if I hadn't read the book.
Most of the characters and main subplots from the book appear in the movie, along with lots of dark cinematography with spiders, birds, and blood, dreary Moscow apartments, and pale people with red-rimmed eyes. The special effects are middle-of-the-road for when it was produced. It is worth seeing after you've read the book, but it's not a very inspiring adaptation.
Verdict: For urban fantasy fans, Night Watch offers a street-level view of an epic conflict, set in modern Moscow. It's got potential and while I found it slow moving at times, it makes up for the lack of action with more depth than usual for the genre. 7/10.
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