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28 April 2016

REVIEW: "Night Watch" -- A Glasnost nocturne

Night Watch Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Supernatural beings called Others walk among us, aligned with either the forces of Light or the forces of Darkness. To police each other, there exist the Watches: the Day Watch, who monitor the Light on behalf of the Darkness, and the Night Watch, who monitor the Darkness on behalf of the Light. But these stories are set in end-of-the-Cold-War Moscow, so everyone's sort of a bastard.

I first encountered the Night Watch through the movie adaptation by Timur Bekmambetov, who also directed its sequel, Day Watch; Wanted; and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (I've seen all of these movies, somehow). The two Watches were reasonably fun dark-urban-fantasy movies, notable for their action scenes, decent FX, and pretty cool "active" subtitles that were integrated into the scene rather than just white letters at the bottom. I had heard good things about the original book series, so I picked up the Audible version.

Most of the book works pretty well on its own terms, but I can't help wondering how much of what I disliked is just an artifact of translation, or of audiobook narration. Don't get me wrong, Paul Michael does a great job for the vast majority of the lines, and does all the character's voices in (varied!) Slavic accents. Some of the characters come off sounding a bit too drawling or "sleepy" for my taste, though, which makes their philosophical conversations (especially in the later two stories in the book) sound rather odd.

The translation has a few quirks, too. For example, men below a certain age are all, invariably, "young guys." Michael also reads this, invariably, with the emphasis on the second word, so it's "young GUYS" all the time. For some reason I couldn't get over it; but I suspect it's less of an issue in text form.

The biggest letdown is the party scene at the cabin in the third story (really, most of the third story is weird), where our protagonist, Anton, mopes around for the whole thing and has pretty bullshit reasons for doing so. The main arc (centered on what exactly the Light tries to do to make a better world) is interesting, and suggests that maybe it's a case of Lawful Stupid rather than Lawful Good, but I don't think it works well enough to be dragged out into a full story.

The first and second stories work better, with the first being, I think, the best. It's probably no wonder the movie is based on it, while the sequel is based on heavily adapted versions of the other two stories. It's a good mystery with a satisfying series of twists, and a nice introduction to the world, with some commentary (both subtle and unsubtle) thrown in for good measure.

Overall I'd highly recommend the first story ("Destiny") in Night Watch, and the others mostly for completion's sake (especially the third story).

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