Nightwatch, by Sergei Lukyanenko
Posted April 9, 2010on:
a version of this review was first published here.
Suspenseful and smart, Nightwatch is comprised of three episodes narrated by Anton, a Nightwatch analyst become fledgling field agent. Anton is charged with saving the girl (and guy), scaring the bad guys, and getting information out of people through coercion, cooperation, or plain investigative and guess work. If Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos character woke up in Danny McBride’s Underworld movie with a little bit of X-Men, and Hellboy mixed in, you might get something like Nighwatch.
I don’t want to give the impression that Nightwatch is derivative, but how many vampire / shapeshifter / werewolf stories are completely original anyways? They are all based on myth with contemporary morals blended in, so don’t let your search for originality keep you from reading this excellent book. I don’t read books like this looking for some kind of new magician, or new kind of shapeshifter, I read them to see what the author is going to do with eons of folkmyth at their disposal.
The Moscow division of Nightwatch and Daywatch have a pretty good system worked out. The Nightwatch, comprised of agents of the Light, keep an eye on the agents of the Darkness, who belong to the Daywatch, with humans none the wiser. Citizens who are found to be “Others” (vampires, were-animals, magicians, etc), are brought into one of the watches for their own safety and for training in how to use their powers. No one’s destiny is written in stone, and everyone has until the last possible moment to choose which side to join. Neither the Darkness nor the Light can coerce someone to join their side, but they are happy to push a person into circumstances which force a person to choose selflessness and the Light, or selfishness and the Darkness.
Every day Anton is faced with divergent paths that can lead him further into the Light of his upbringing, or closer to the Darkness, which makes no moral requirements of him. After saving Svetlana from the darkness, he has no choice but to fall in love with her, only to watch her lose interest in him as her powers grow beyond his. How far will he go to protect Svetlana from those who wish to use her, and keep her love for himself? Every step Anton and Sveta take to be together takes them one step away from the Light and one step towards the Darkness.
Constantly sent on little missions to keep him out of trouble and out of the office, Anton starts to see a pattern in the behavior of his boss Boris, and the activity of Daywatch agents. But what if it’s not what he thinks? What if Boris isn’t the light drenched angel Anton has been hero worshipping all this time? Everyone knows Boris has big plans for Svetlana, and Anton begins to suspect he is just the bait.
Lukyanenko has a great time developing the culture of the Others – logistical details on legal liscences to feed and kill, etiquette on shapeshifting (it’s very rude to watch someone shape shift), traditions on educating young Others, and severe punishments for breaking the rules. The truce between the Light and the Darkness is tantamount to a Cold War nuclear standoff – don’t break the rules or you’ll be known forever as the one who brought retaliation on the entire population. His contemporary treatment of an age old mythos is wonderfully fun and entertaining, but his portrayal of Anton, a man torn between love and duty, and man whose eyes are opened to the manipulation that has been going on for generations is truly heartbreaking.
Once I got into this novel, I couldn’t put it down. I’ve read it twice now, and it was even better the second time around. Lukyananko’s supernaturals are smart, sexy, enjoyable, and just might have your best interests at heart. Even better, no one sparkles, and no one is referred to as a muggle.