Night Watch - Andrew Bromfield, Sergei Lukyanenko


Night Watch

by Sergei Lukyanenko

(Translated by Andrew Bromfield)


"You find life such a problem because you think there are good people and bad people. You're wrong, of course. There are, always and only, the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides." --Terry Pratchett

Summon up your own shadow and let it pull you into the Twilight, the liminal land of heartless greys and mysterious shadows, where truths cannot be hidden and where magic is real. But the Twilight's gift is two-edged. While it will grant you powers, it will also leech away your humanity, transforming you into an Other: an inhuman, immortal being who sees the world as inalterably divided into Light and Dark. If you walk into the Twilight, pray that you do so with a merry heart. Don't bring anger or greed or sadness, because that first moment in the Twilight will alter your fate forever. Walk in with laughter on your lips and you'll be a servant of the Light; step in with sadness and you'll be a creature of the Dark.

After eons of war between Light and Dark, the two forces have created an unholy truce: to maintain a balance between good and evil. Vampires can hunt and kill only via the approved lottery, and Light mages cannot perform healings and "remoralizations" at random. Anton is a member of the Night Watch, the Light's police force against the powers of Darkness. He has been a sysadmin for the past few years, and this is his first active field mission: to find and stop a rogue vampire. However, when he discovers a girl under a terrible curse, his mission is diverted: a curse this monstrous means all of Moscow is in danger, and the Night Watch must race to save the city.

Night Watch was a very interesting read and my first non-Anglo/American urban fantasy. It is wonderfully successful at capturing the atmosphere of Moscow, and the themes and perspective are very different from those presented in American books. What troubled and intrigued me most was the extreme polarity of the magical system, its inherent arbitrariness, and the morality seemingly assumed by each side. In general, I have real issues with stories that split the world into Good and Evil (which perhaps explains my ill success with most epic fantasy.) In general, I feel that such an attitude is laughably simplistic and removes all moral complexity and grey areas from the story. However, Night Watch is, at its core, a deconstruction of this concept. Even though I was continually frustrated by the seeming contradictions in the book's portrayal of good and evil, I think Anton's story and his often unacknowledged doubts cause the reader to fall even further than Anton into despair and nihilism.

From the outset, Night Watch forces one to consider the basis of morality, for in the Twilight, even the tiniest fluctuation in a person's mood irrevocably determine their "side." Throughout the story, I struggled to understand this, and I'm still not sure what the author was trying to portray. The Twilight is, at its heart, an apple from the tree of knowledge; as one character notes,

""We enter [the Twilight] in order to acquire strength. And as the price for entering it we give up the right to the part of the truth we don't want to accept. Ordinary human geings have it easier...they can be good or bad, it all depends on the moment, on their surroundings, on the book they had yesterday, on the steak they had for dinner. That's why they're so easy to control."

The narration seems to seesaw between unquestioning utilization of this duality and an increasingly nihilistic deconstruction of it. The Dark Others are portrayed alternately as sympathetic and as unquestionably evil; their Power comes directly from increases in chaos and human misery, so it seems reasonable that powerful Dark Ones must have succumbed to evil. But what of the weak Dark Ones? How is it their fault that the Twilight forced them into grief? They are portrayed as being able to pursue ordinary lives, so why assume they are necessarily evil? Why did entering the Twilight remove all choice from them? As Anton wonders,

How did it feel to be an outcast? To be punished, not for committing a crime, but for the potential ability to commit it?

This issue is even more apparent for the Light. The Light Others gain their power by siphoning the happiness of the population, so it is in their selfish interest to create a utopia.

Some brilliant quotes:

"We can't defeat the Darkness ourselves. The little people have to be enlightened first. Become kind and loving, industrious and intelligent. So that every Other can see nothing but the Light. What a great goal it was; how long the ripples lasted when it was drowned in blood...We'll always survive..and we'll continue the old struggle. It's only people who lose." [...] "We can only win by creating an ideal society...we have to change the human world...that's the path to victory! To create a new world."
"A brave new world."...
"We're not going to repeat our old mistakes."
"We're going to make new ones instead."
[...] "Social models are developed that should eventually--at the cost of massive upheavals and immense bloodshed--create the ideal society..But your path is so very accuse us of cruelty..but what's one child killed in a black mass compared with any fascist children's concentration camp?..Another mistake? Then you sighed, wiped the slates clean, and started experimenting all over again."
(show spoiler)

To me, their actions are far more disturbing than those of the Dark: they are ruthlessly willing to sacrifice their own like pawns, to experiment upon the populace, and even to perform "remoralizations" upon the populace to forcibly direct their actions. Yet their actions are, apparently by definition, always "Good." What happens if a Light mage wants to begin acting selfishly? Why would a single moment of happiness wipe out the innate selfishness of a person's nature? Yet according to Anton, an Other cannot switch sides; either a Light One is incapable of acting selfishly, or even in selfishness, he is still of the Light. How is it, then, that to me, the Light is far more evil than the Dark? Even Anton begins to wonder:

"Why was it that the Light acted through lies, and the Darkness acted through truth? Why was it that our truth proved powerless, but the lies were effective? And why was the Darkness able to manage perfectly well with truth in order to do Evil? Whose nature was responsible, humankind's or ours?"

The story heavily explores the issue of free will, and it was interesting to delve into a perspective that was entirely alien to my own. I'm an American, and a sacred tenant of our belief is free will. Even though we all know instinctively that not everyone is "special" and not everyone can do or become whatever they wish to be, to actually say so in American society equates to heresy. Anton's perspective is entirely different: he is repeatedly told that free will is just another word for selfishness, and a province only of the Dark Ones:

"We don't have any choice...when we acknowledge that human beings have the right to choose, we deprive ourselves of it."

Brought up in a Judeo-Christian faith, I tend to think of forgiveness as duty, an act of love, an act of faith.  But in Anton's world, forgiveness is impossible:

In war, the most dangerous thing is to understand the enemy. To understand is to forgive. And we have no right to do that--we never have, not since the creation of the world.

I had real difficulty wrapping my head around this perspective, but was fascinated by it, and with the conclusions that Anton eventually draws.

In terms of readability, I was pleasantly surprised by how resonant and natural the language of the translation was. My only minor quibble was the serious surfeit of exclamation points--it made me wonder about cultural differences in punctuation. The structure is very different from the standard novel: it is split into three parts, with each part a different case with its own story arc. Although the characters and themes intertwine, I see Night Watch more as a set of three novellas or vignettes rather than a connected novel. To me, the abrupt switches in plot were a weakness in the story, but tastes are sure to differ on this. I wasn't able to warm to most of the characters, mainly because descriptions of them are typically tell rather than show. I warmed to the very few who actually had both quirks and conversations. As a character, I found Anton terrifying. His sudden bursts of ruthlessness and savagery are more extreme than most of the other semi-antiheroic protagonists I have encountered.

[The moment in the second part where he leaves the other with his hand stuck in the glass, then lets him fall to his death and doesn't give it a second thought? I'm still reeling in shock.]

(show spoiler)

Yet this attitude in itself helps to accentuate the ultimate question of the book: what is Good and Evil, and how can one distinguish between them?

Night Watch is a unique read; its explicit exploration of themes of morality and its deconstruction of the ideals of good and evil can wander into rather ponderous moralizing at some points, but the multiple plot arcs and continuous action mean that the story never drags or suffers. It was also incredibly quotable, as my large collection of status updates can attest. I found its exploration of what "good" and "free will" actually mean to be captivating, and I was left pondering these themes long after I closed the book. Overall, it was definitely a worthwhile read, although it left me wanting to get drunk in the proper Russian fashion (on vodka)--and I don't drink. Like one of the characters, I'm beginning to understand

"What real Russian drunkenness was all's about waking up in the morning with everything around you looking gray. Gray sky, gray sun, gray city, gray people, gray thoughts. And the only way out is to have another drink. Then you feel better. Then the colors come back."

This book, with its eternal war and the terrifying inhumanity on both sides, with humans trapped in the middle of the struggle, definitely leaves you feeling grey and in need of something to bring the colours back.