Tag Archives: magic

Review 137: The Last Watch

The Last Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

This review is acceptable to the forces of Light. – The Night Watch

This review is acceptable to the forces of Darkness. – The Day Watch

When I finished The Twilight Watch a couple of years ago, I thought that was it. Night, Day, Twilight, done. But when I announced that I would be doing the Night Watch trilogy as my end-of-month podcast, I got several emails from listeners who were quick to correct me. The series is not a trilogy, they said, but rather a tetralogy (okay, no one actually used this term). There is a fourth book out there, and I had no idea it existed!

Also thanks to modern technology, I can recycle images! Everybody wins!

Thanks to modern technology, I was able to get the final (as far as I know) book, The Last Watch on my Kindle and get myself up to speed.

Much like the previous volumes, this one is divided into three novellas, which all tie together into a greater plot. In the first, we are once again introduced to Anton Gorodetsky, an agent of the Moscow Night Watch. Due to the events of the last book, Anton is now a Higher Other, having been elevated by the use of the fuaran a mystical book that can create or raise Others. His abilities are far beyond most, and that makes his responsibilities that much greater.

He is assigned by his boss, Gesar, to investigate a mysterious killing in Edinburgh, Scotland. A young man, the son of a Russian magnate, has been murdered, and it looks for all the world like a vampire – a Dark Other – has done the deed. The pact between the Dark and the Light expressly forbids such actions, and the violation of treaty could lead to terrible consequences for all.

You'd think a Scottish vampire wouldn't be so hard to find....

Problem is, the Day Watch has no idea who or what killed the young man, and they’re just as hot to find the killer as Anton is. And of course, the clues don’t add up. The method of the murder doesn’t fit the M.O. of your standard vampire, and the place where the murder occurred – a horror funhouse in the middle of the city – has its own mysterious properties as well. Anton knows he’s on the right track, though, when someone tries to kill him, and he ends up fighting his way through the Twilight to get his answers. What he finds, however, is evidence that the mythical Merlin had left something in Edinburgh for safekeeping. Something truly terrible, no matter whose hands it fell into.

In the second story, Anton is sent out to Uzbekistan to find one of the greatest Others who had ever lived, a man by the name of Rustam. Almost a legend among Others, Rustam is probably the only one who can come even close to figuring out what Merlin hid, and why. But he won’t be easy to find. Anton not only has to deal with the Watches of Samarkand – which are far less efficient and well-staffed as others in Europe – but there’s still someone out to kill him. This time, though, they’re using ensorcelled humans to do the job, something that is also expressly forbidden.

It soon becomes clear that there is a small conspiracy of very powerful Others – one Dark, one Light, and an Inquisitor, who serves neither – who are trying to recover the artifact that Merlin left behind. Their reasons are unknown, but they’re willing to destroy anyone who poses a threat to them. Including, of course, Anton.

It is in the third story where the whole plan finally comes together. That three-person conspiracy is determined to get their hands on Merlin’s power, to collapse the Twilight and fundamentally change the world. If they have to kidnap Anton and threaten Moscow with a nuclear warhead to do it, then so be it. Their ends are, in their minds, wholly justified. It is up to Anton and his allies to avert this tragedy and see to it that the power they seek is never wielded by anyone ever again.

As with the other books, the great supernatural action hides a greater exploration of the fundamental differences between right and wrong, good and evil. As terrible as the Last Watch are, they are doing what they believe to be right, and even Anton can come to understand their motives at one point. But they way they go about it, through dark magic and darker murder, doesn’t nearly justify their aim. And so we see that evil done in the pursuit of good merely produces more evil.

Or how you define "Eeeeeevil."

Depending, of course, on how you define “evil.”

What’s more, there’s quite a bit of metafiction in this book. It’s clear that Lukyanenko is a fan of fantasy – he references Tolkien and Pratchett, just to name a couple of great authors. But he also knows the tropes of fantasy that have survived for so long, and makes sure his characters know them as well. When words are written on the walls, when people go in search of a great object of power or an unwinnable quest, chances are that one of the characters has read something like it in a fantasy book.

Go ahead. Write a 5,000 page epic fantasy about these guys.

At one point, when talking about how there are Others who would like to rule the world, the Inquisitor Edgar notes that it’s what people really want. It’s why fantasy is so much more popular than science fiction, he claims, because everyone dreams of being the magician or wielding the magic sword. It all makes sense, in a way that science fiction doesn’t. Anton, of course, doesn’t buy this, noting that most people who live in a Medieval Thaumocracy would be just like the peasants of long ago – poor, dirty, and dead by forty. So even in a world where magic is very real and very important, the characters know the difference between fantasy and reality in a way that we can relate to. I just find that fascinating.

It’s good fun, and a nice way to close out a very imaginative series. It’s exciting and heartbreaking and funny – with a nice hat-tip to the Night Watch movie thrown in near the beginning. What’s more, it’s a well-built magical system and society that allows for a great variety of stories and characters. Honestly, I would love to see Lukyanenko expand on this universe, or even open it up for others to play in.

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“There is very much in the world that is bad. But usually the attempt to defeat evil engenders more evil. I advise you to do good; that is the only way to win the victory!”
– Rustam, The Last Watch
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The Last Watch on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko’s website (in English)
The Last Watch on Amazon.com

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Filed under afterlife, apocalypse, death, detective fiction, fantasy, ghosts, good and evil, morality, Russia, Sergei Lukyanenko, vampires, werewolves, witches, wizardry, world-crossing

Review 124: The Night Watch

The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

This review has been approved for distribution as conducive to the cause of the Light. – The Night Watch

This review has been approved for distribution as conducive to the cause of the Dark. – The Day Watch

Imagine a world where magic is real. A place where people known as Others are born with powers they don’t understand. Their destinies are unwritten until that fateful day when they first become an Other – when they discover the strange, shadowy and powerful world known as the Twilight – and have to make a choice: will they stand with the Light or with the Dark. Will they dedicate their lives to Good or Evil?

Maybe it ain't what it used to be, but it's still dramatic.... (art by mirerror on DeviantArt)

It’s not an easy decision to make, by any means. Joining either side has its limitations and its rules, for the battle between Good and Evil isn’t what it used to be.

Long ago, it was simple – Good fought Evil, Dark fought Light, and blood was shed on both sides. It was a vicious, unending war that threatened to decimate the world. Finally, the two sides reached an agreement. A Treaty, well deserving of the capital letter. There would be a truce between the two sides, a balance that would be maintained at all costs. Any act of evil would be balanced by an act of goodness, and vice versa. Neither side is to have an advantage.

Part of the Day Watch Auxiliary Brigade

Making sure the peace is kept is the job of the Watches – the Night Watch, staffed by elites of the Light to guard against advances by the Dark, and a Day Watch, staffed by the elites of the Dark to guard against excesses of the Light. We begin our look at the Others of Moscow with a young adept named Anton Sergeeivich Gorodetsky, a wielder of magic and an analyst forced into the more exciting realm of field work. His job is to find out who a pair of vampires are illegally attempting to seduce and stop them. In the process of doing that, and saving the soul of a young Other named Egor, he stumbles upon something that threatens the entire city of Moscow, if not all of Russia. A young woman has a curse upon her head, so horrible and so powerful that the forces of the Light may have no chance to disperse it. If she dies, the city will die with her. If she lives, even worse may befall the world.

There are three stories in this book, somewhat independent but entirely connected. The first details the discovery of Egor and the cursed Svetlana. In the second, an Other of the Light, a maverick who doesn’t know about the rest of the Others, or the Treaty between Light and Dark, is murdering Dark adepts. Somewhat alarmingly, Anton is being framed for the murders. In the third book, Moscow is gripped in a heat wave. In the midst of this, the leaders of the Light are attempting to change the world. Whether it ends up being for the better or the worse, no one can know. But Anton is convinced that it must not come to pass….

Team ANTON!!!!!

It’s a gripping fantasy, in a very complex world. It’s compared to Rowling’s work, and justly so (although I don’t think there’s much of a case to be made for an attempt to ride on Rowling’s coattails – Night Watch was originally published in 1998, only a year after the release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). There are substantial differences, of course, making Night Watch a much more adult book than the Potter series. There are very few children, and the few that are there are not in very substantial roles. There’s far more drinking, smoking and sex in this, of course. But the world that Lukyanenko has created is every bit as deep and complex as the one Rowling has made. There are any number of roles that could be played, and an almost infinite number of situations that could be built on the fairly simple rules that are set up by the Light-Dark Treaty.

The biggest difference, of course, is in the complexity of the world. Rowling’s world is fairly definitive in its divisions between good and evil – there is good, there is evil, and there is no question of which is which. The evil characters are definitively evil, and the good characters are definitively good, and the reader doesn’t have to worry too much about who’s on which side, Snape notwithstanding.

The Others of Moscow, however, are not nearly so clear-cut. Yes, the Light is trying to do the work of the Good, to make the world a better place. But their machinations and their plots don’t always go as planned. See the Russian Revolution and World War II for examples why. They ignore the Law of Unintended Consequences and the horrors it can unleash. By trying to do Good, they unleash great evil upon the world.

He's just a big softie, really....

And how about the Dark? Yes, they’re populated by werewolves, witches and vampires, but they are advocates of utter and total freedom. They do not destroy for the sheer joy of destruction, but because they want to increase the personal freedom of the world. They’re not interested in making humanity “better,” or making a better world. They simply want to live in the world as it is, free from restraints – both internal and external.

While it may be pretty clear who is on the Light and Dark side, it’s not entirely clear who is doing Good or Evil at any given time. And, more importantly, it is almost impossible to know who is actually right.

It’s a great read – full of anguish and self-doubt and torture, like any good Russian novel should be. Anton knows that the Light doesn’t live up to the standards that it preaches, but he knows that he needs to be on the right side. He picks apart the intricate, decades-long plot of the Night Watch and very nearly figures out how to foil it. But even in revealing the truth, he does not manage to save the world from the doom of the Light.

Or does he?

We’ll have to read the next book and find out….

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“You accuse us of cruelty, and not entirely without reason, but what’s one child killed in a black mass compared with any fascist children’s concentration camp?”
– Zabulon, of the Day Watch, The Night Watch
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The Night Watch on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko’s website (in English)
The Night Watch at Amazon.com

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Filed under ethics, fantasy, good and evil, horror, identity, made into movies, morality, philosophy, politics, Russia, Sergei Lukyanenko, short stories, society, USSR, vampires, werewolves, witches, wizardry

Review 79: Guards! Guards!


Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

One of the dangers of reading Discworld books, of course, is that you may never stop. Much like potato chips, it’s hard to just have one and then move on to something else, especially – and this may strike some of you as a bit odd – when you’ve already read them.

There are people who never re-read books, and don’t see the point in doing so. “You already know the ending,” they might say, “and you know how the story goes. What’s the point in reading it again?” I never, ever understood that. I mean, if you have a good story, well-told, why wouldn’t you want to read it again? If it had meaning for you and struck a chord deep within whatever it is you might call a “soul,” then reading it again is almost mandatory.

I can certainly see our Straw Man’s point if the book is bad, or even just mediocre. There are plenty of books that I’ve read that I’ll probably never pick up again. But the Discworld series doesn’t contain any of them.

This one is the first in the Guards track – one of four major story tracks within the series – and it quickly made the adventures of the Ankh-Morpork city guard some of my favorite stories.

The book opens in darkness and mystery, a kind of film noir feeling that permeates the whole story (although I am challenged to think of any noir film that featured a dragon as the main antagonist – but more on that later). Captain Samuel Vimes of the Night Watch is about as low as he can go. He’s drunk, it’s raining, and he has finally seen himself for what he’s always believed himself to be. A wreck. A bum. A loose end in the city, respected by no one and nothing, with the exception of the two other poor souls in the Watch with him. If we were to cast Vimes in the movie, we’d have to cast Bogart at his drunkest.

Vimes is a mirror of his city, really. Ankh-Morpork is the biggest city on the Disc, and it embodies all the worst elements of cities everywhere. It’s crowded and dirty, a place where people would sell their own mothers for a chance to get ahead. It’s ruled by a system of guilds and merchants, an ever-fluctuating oligarchy all directed by a Patrician who wields his power with pinpoint precision. Crime not only flourishes in Ankh-Morpork, it positively thrives, regulated and controlled by its own guild.

In short, there’s no place in the city for the Watch, and no place in it for Vimes. Maybe long ago he harbored thoughts of saving his city from itself, but no longer. Now all he wants is his next drink.

He’s not the only one thinking of a better city, though. In the dark recesses of Ankh-Morpork, a secret society meets. They are a shadowy group of bretheren who believe that the only thing keeping their city from being a good place to live is the lack of a king. Ankh-Morpork had kings once, and is so often the case, the dimly-remembered past looks a lot better than the immediately visible future. And so the Unique and Supreme Lodge of the Elucidated Bretheren gather with a singular goal in mind – to create a king.

It’s not that easy, though. You can’t just pull some schmoe out of a crowd and say, “Here – start kinging.” There needs to be no doubt in people’s minds that this person has been tapped by destiny to become their king. Like if he, say, slew a dragon or something….

Into all of this strides Carrot Ironfoundersson, a young dwarf-by-adoption who has been sent by his foster father to learn how to be a human being. And what better way to do that, they suppose, then to volunteer for the Ankh-Morpork Night Watch? Within moments of his arrival he begins to upend the very structure of the city itself. Carrot is everything that Vimes – or anyone else – wishes they could be: honest, forthright, idealistic, the kind of man who would arrest the head of the Thieves’ Guild for stealing. He knows the law and believes in it, which makes him just the wrong person for the Watch. Or, as things turn out, just the right one.

What begins as a magical conspiracy ends up being a murder-mystery, with a giant, fire-breathing dragon as the main murder weapon. Faced with this threat to both himself and his city, Vimes and Carrot, Nobby and Sergeant Colon are the only people who are willing to put themselves between the city and the dragon. Not, all things considered, the place they most want to be, but they’re all there is.

It’s a really good book, and an excellent introduction to the Guards track of the Discworld series. It is, of course, very funny – that goes without saying in this series – but also very meaningful. It has a lot to do with dreams and ideals, and the manner in which we are willing to achieve those dreams. Some by trickery and subterfuge, like the dragon-summoners, others by sheer honesty and idealism, like Carrot. And even those who have given up on their dreams, like Captain Vimes, can be persuaded to pick them up again, dust them off and give them another go.

It’s a story of redemption, not only for Vimes, but for the city of Ankh-Morpork. Much like Vimes, the city looks hopelessly lost at the beginning of the book – all rain and darkness and death – but by the end we have a glimmer of hope that it can become a better place. A place where the law can win out over corruption and decay, and where good people, standing up against million-to-one odds, can sometimes come out on top.

And if that’s not a story that deserves to be re-read, then I don’t know what is.

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You have the effrontery to be squeamish. But we were dragons. We were supposed to be cruel, cunning, heartless, and terrible. But this much I can tell you, you ape – we never burned and tortured and ripped one another apart and called it morality.
– The Dragon, Guards! Guards!
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Terry Pratchett on Wikipedia
Guards! Guards! on Wikipedia
Discworld on Wikipedia
Guards! Guards! at Amazon.com
Guards! Guards! on Wikiquote
Terry Pratchett’s website

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Filed under Discworld, dragons, fantasy, humor, police, Terry Pratchett