Review: The Day Watch

by Tom Ingram

Urban Fantasy is an interesting genre because it has a tendency to take on the characteristics of the city it’s set in. The setting becomes a player as important to the story and atmosphere as the characters. Imagine The Dresden Files without Chicago, Artemis Fowl without Dublin, or even Buffy without Sunnydale (technically it was Rural Fantasy, but let’s face it: once you’ve got a campus of a major university and an international airport, you’re no longer a small town).

Each series has a unique flavour to it, but when you get right down to it, they’re all set in relatively prosperous cities in the West, and there’s not a whole lot of cultural difference. That’s where Sergei Lukyanenko comes in.

In the nineties, Lukyanenko wrote a novel called The Night Watch that was set in Moscow, where he lives. It was very successful in Russia, enough so to get an English translation. That book is impossible to find in any brick-and-mortar bookstore or library in Canada, and I rarely buy things from online dealers, so I haven’t read it. Nonetheless, it’s by all accounts an excellent read. A few years later the sequel, The Day Watch, was released, and it’s easily available.

The cover to this book is a liar. Don’t trust anything it says. Wikipedia and TV Tropes (and the book’s copyright page) say that it was cowritten by Lukyanenko and Vladimir Vasilyev, but the cover only mentions Lukyanenko. It depicts a twenty-something guy in a leather jacket and sunglasses and an owl, neither of which appear in the book. The blurb on the back describes one story (getting a character’s name wrong), neglecting to mention that this is a collection of three novella-length stories. Seal Books really cocked this one up.

I came into The Day Watch expecting a full-length novel, and I was quite surprised when the first story ended a third of the way through. It seemed like it launched into a completely unrelated story that happened to be set in the same universe. However, on further investigation it turns out that this is Lukyanenko’s “thing”. The Night Watch is laid out the same way. The third story ties the first two together with a satisfying payoff. It’s an interesting way to structure a novel, because it gives several very different perspectives on events.

In the first story, Unauthorized Personnel Permitted, a dark witch named Alisa Donnikova is completely drained of her power during a fight with the Moscow Night Watch. The head of the Day Watch, Zabulon, arranges for her to work as a counsellor at a pioneer camp (like Russian boy scouts) to recuperate: she feeds on the nightmares and negative emotions of the girls around her. At the camp, she falls in love with a young man, also a counsellor, and it’s not until she regains her powers that she learns the truth: the man is a light magician from the Day Watch, and he drained his power at the same fight as she did, only on the opposite side.

The second story, A Stranger Among Others, is told from the point of view of Vitaly Rogozo, a Ukranian dark magician. He wakes up in a park in Ukraine with almost no previous memories, and a mysterious voice in his head guides him to Moscow, where he gets mixed up in the battle between the Day and Night Watches.

The third story, Another Power, is much more connected to the overall Night Watch chronology. It ties the first two together in a meaningful way. It shows a tribunal led by the neutral Inquisition, where cases are heard that relate to all the intrigue between the Light and Dark powers.

Aside from being a gripping read, it also has a surprising thematic depth to it. The battle between the Night and Day Watches could be seen as a metaphor for the Cold War. The two powers struggle to gain advantages over each other, but they can’t act outright due to the treaty that binds them both. This causes them to do a lot of manoeuvring and plotting, manipulating each other subtly for small gains here and there. The rather cavalier way they regard normal humans reflects the way governments see their people.

It also explores the psyche of the Dark Others in a way that The Night Watch didn’t. Three prominent POV characters are on the Day Watch, and we get to see what drives them. They aren’t evil, murderous, or insane, just independent. They take pride in freedom, for certain values of “freedom”. They believe that true freedom requires a dog-eat-dog world where people survive and get by on their own merits.

However, it also shows the root of this kind of rah-rah individualism: a feeling of powerlessness. Alisa Donnikova has a miserable home life, and at some point she must have decided to leave her parents to their misery and stop feeling bad about it. After all, there’s nothing she can do about it, and it’s a lot more pleasant to think, “Everyone has to fight to survive. Those who don’t survive aren’t fighting hard enough,” than to accept that for all her intelligence and power, she’s completely at a loss.

Only a few things in this book bothered me. First, there was the issue of POV. The Day Watch is the first time I’ve ever seen an author switch between first- and third-person narrative in the middle of a story, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. On the whole, I think it was unnecessary and jarring.

There’s also a huge focus on music as a thematic element, which doesn’t work well in book form unless it uses songs that everybody knows. I suspect this comes from Vasilyev, who according to Wikipedia is a musician. Not being Russian, I didn’t get any of the references. The translated lyrics don’t fit any particular rhythm or rhyme scheme, so they’re pretty hard to read (I just skipped over them).

This is a beautifully written novel (rendered into excellent English by Andrew Bromfield), extremely well thought-out, and exciting to read. There are a few minor flaws that probably arise from the fact that they were translated. No matter how well it’s translated at a linguistic level, the cultural differences will always cause a little confusion. But it captures the spirit of Moscow beautifully. Lukyanenko does intriguing experiments with the structure of a novel that don’t hurt readability. The Day Watch is a thoughtful page-turner that leaves you intellectually and emotionally satisfied.

You can find The Day Watch online at Chapters, McNally, or Amazon if you’re internationally inclined.