Night Watch (the book)

Back at the begining of February I reviewed the movie Night Watch. It was deeply flawed but great looking action flick – in other words, very Hollywood like in execution. The plot seemed fragmented, and some things didn’t make any sense. I felt that there had to be more to this, so I picked up the book on which the movie was based.

Night Watch Cover

Unsurprisingly it turned out the be much better than the adaptation. It is still somewhat action oriented, fast paced and easy reading but it has a very different tone. It’s actually much lighter, and not devoid of humor. Lukyanenko seems to have a good grasp of irony which is completely missing from the movie. And it’s this sense of irony that actually is the centerpiece of the whole story. The setup is as follows: there is a treaty between the forces of good and evil, forcing them to coexist peacefully. There are checks and balances, tribunals an special enforcement agencies on both sides.

The dark side naturally wants to cause suffering, chaos and mayhem because they feed off human misfortune. It is the actual source of their power – this is how they charge up for performing powerful feats of magic. Unfortunately for them, they can’t really just walk around making people miserable. For every harm they cause, the light side gets to do equal (or equivalent) amount of good. Sadly it works both ways.

Imagine yourself being in the shoes of the main character – Anton. He has the proper training, and enough power to do incredible amount of good. He could heal the terminally ill, save people from a horrible train wreck, or turn recidivist criminals into upstanding citizens. But he can’t – and if he tried, his pals from the light side would have to put him down to maintain the balance between the good and evil. So instead Anton has to walk past pain, suffering and ignore human crimes and idly watch as vampires feed on unsuspecting humans as per licensing agreements they were able to obtain from the light side.

The treaty is uneasy for both sides, and both scheme, plot and try to find some wiggle room to further their goals, and gain small advantage over the other. This means that the Night Watch (a light side organization which oversees and polices the activity of the dark ones) is not always about doing good. It’s almost always about self sacrifice. Being on the side of light means being a pawn in a convoluted game of intrigue, brokered deals with the dark side, diversions, feints and subversive tactics.

When the story begins, Anton is already pretty jaded about the shady tactics of the Night Watch. As his power grows, and he finds out more and more about the history and inner secrets of the organization, and becomes an unwilling pawn in one of it’s biggest operations to date he becomes completely disillusioned.

Lukyanenko starts with a black and white world, where the forces of evil are well defined, and then grabs his color palette, and starts adding shades of gray all over the place. In the end there is nothing left, and the light side ends up being as detrimental to the well being of the human kind, as the dark side. So the interesting bit is watching this deconstruction of this universe.

The backdrop for the story is modern Moscow which is a city of great contrasts very similar to the stark contrast between the forces of the Day and Night Watch. Here wealth and luxury spectacularly clashes with dirt and poverty – both competing for the same living space inside of the city. Lavish sports cars zoom past groups of underprivileged lower class citizens who can barely make the ends meet in post communist capitalistic Russia. You probably couldn’t pick a better setting.

The story is unveiled in 3 self contained chapters. Each is constructed the same way – it starts with a short exposition of a crisis situation. Next we witness Anton being thrown into the middle of the crisis, with the tension building up to an explosive resolution, accompanied by a clever twist. Naturally after the first chapter, you are pretty much expecting the very same type of twist in the second one, and when it happens again in the third you are no longer surprised. Each part could probably fend on it’s own as a short story, but they are related and and up telling a much broader and more interesting tale when read as a whole. To me however a less structured approach could have been better – but it helps to keep the book fast paced and easy to follow (which, again, is not always a good thing).

To tell you the truth, the part of the story which interested me the most was the concept of the Twilight, which was barely hinted at in the movie. Lukyanenko describes it as a sort of parallel shadowy dimension which can be accessed by rising your shadow and walking through it. It sort of reminiscent of Umbra from WoD.

Anton claims that there are 3 (or perhaps more) levels of Twilight. The first level essentially looks like a bleak and shadowy version of this universe that is run in slow motion. Deeper levels become much more alien, and disconnected from the physical universe. Second level for example is a dark realm filled with mist and rain in which features from the real world start to disappear. For example, Anton dispatches an enemy by pulling him into the second level of Twilight on an observation platform high above the ground. Since the platform does not exist thus plunging him down to the ground. We never see the third level, because our hero is not powerful to survive in it.

Twilight seems to drain your strength, and while an experienced Other can stay on the first level for hours, sooner or later it becomes dangerous. Second level is even more difficult to navigate, and more power hungry. Third is almost impossible to enter without strong protective magic, or transforming into some demonic form.

Similarly to Umbra, Twilight is inhabited by strange, and often misunderstood spirits. Most of them seem to be some sort of wraiths or ghosts of Others who either withdrew into this shadowy realm and were changed by it, or decided to inhabit it after death. There is no mentioning of daemons, gods or any kind of other supernatural beings living in there, other than some storage blue moss which seems to feed of human emotion.

In the novel, all magical duels and face-offs happen within Twilight, to keep collateral damage down to minimum. It is rather convenient solution, but it does make sense internally. It is an interesting concept and the movie really under-utilized it.

I guess my main complain about this book would have to deal with translation. Andrew Broomfield does a very good job for the most part, but there were several things that bothered me. For example, he insists on translating militsiya (мили́ция) as militia. While technically correct, considering the etymology of the word it seems a bit clumsy. In most English speaking countries when we talk about militia we usually mean a temporary, unpaid, paramilitary force composed out of citizen volunteers created to deal with specific threats or emergencies. This is naturally a wrong connotation. In soviet block countries militia (or rather militsiya) was essentially a state funded police force. The tactics, and organization differ from western police models, but I personally think that militia was a wrong choice here.

I say that, because it took me few seconds to realize what the characters were talking about – and I actually lived in a country that used to have a militsiya (there called milicja and later renamed to policja) for many years. So if I was confused, someone unfamiliar with this terminology would be completely lost. Using the word Police, or leaving it as a militsiya (which is I think transliteration from cyrylic) would make much more sense.

There were several other small hiccups like this one. I didn’t write any of them down, and I can’t recall them all but I remember that there was more than one. As a whole, the book just seems too sterile. None of the characters ever use any slang, or common contractions. They are all very articulate, and fond of big words. And while this clean and articulate voice it is perfectly acceptable for Anton – who is an educated programmer, it seems out of place when used for some of the other characters.

Some sort of change of pace, or creative speech-pattern modeling would do wonders for this novel. I have seen this done many times – only the other way around. For example, back in the day I read Polish translations of some of Terry Pratchet’s early books and found them humorous and colorful – with the signature English humor either surviving intact, or being converted to something more familiar and sensible as needed.

Translating a novel isn’t always about simply getting the meaning across. Sometimes injecting a bit of a personal touch and creativity into the text goes a long way. But that’s just my opinion.

All in all, Night Watch is not a bad book. It is mostly a fast paced, action romp but the ambiguous approach to the whole light and darkness dichotomy gives it a more layered, and almost philosophical touch. Don’t expect it to change your life, but if you want some easy but not brain-dead reading I recommend picking it up. :)

[tags]night watch, sergei lukyanenko, andrew bromfield[/tags]

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3 Responses to Night Watch (the book)

  1. Muhammad SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    A book that is actually better than the movie adaptation. No surprise there! :D

    There’s a game called Night Watch too. I think it is also based on the book or movie. If i remember correctly, it’s a turn-based tactical squad kinda game.

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  2. ths UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    after reading Pterry in english I’d never again touch any of his german translations. The german books carry over some fun, but most of the puns and the philosophical approach are completely missing.

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  3. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @Muhammad – now that you mention it, I think I recall reading something about the game a while ago. I didn’t connect the two things until I read your comment.

    @ths – it’s true, the original is always better. That’s just how it is. But there are good translations, and bad translations. And there is stuff in the middle.

    From what I remember, the Pratchet translations were less layered (as some of the wordplay, puns and allusions simply wouldn’t work) but I still enjoyed them. :) As I was reading them I never really wondered “I wonder if this would have played out differently in the original”.

    When I was reading Night Watch I constantly had that feeling of second guessing the translator. And I don’t even know Russian – but I kinda know the sound and the flow of the language – and it was just wrong in different places.

    But yes, I wouldn’t go back to reading Pratchet translations. :P

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