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Review 133: The Twilight Watch

The Twilight Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

This review is of no relevance to the cause of the Light. – The Night Watch

This review is of no relevance to the cause of the Dark. – The Day Watch

This world is one that is riddled with possibilities. Even though Lukyanenko has been pretty single-minded in his themes throughout the trilogy, there’s a lot to work with here. We have two distinct groups of Others, the Light and the Dark, with different character classes, powers, abilities, levels and ambitions. If anyone wanted to write fan fiction or even a role-playing game based on the world of the Night Watch series, they would be able to let their imaginations roam free. It’s an open-ended universe, rife with possibility.

So why isn’t it is popular worldwide as, say, Harry Potter? Probably because it’s more grown-up than the Potter series, and is therefore less attractive.

Sure, Draco turned out to be faintly ambiguous, but Crabbe and Goyle? They're just bad apples.

Don’t get me wrong – I liked Harry Potter. But for all its merits, it deals with human-level issues: friendship, family, duty, loyalty. And those are all well and good, and many a great story has been told from those elements. The Night Watch series, on the other hand, deals with harder, less everyday topics, such as the nature of freedom, and the fundamental differences between Good and Evil, if there is any difference at all. The themes in these books are headier, and it’s not as easy to look at a Light Other like Anton Gorodetsky and say, “I want to be like him.” It’s also hard to look at a Dark Other like the vampire Kostya and say, “Oooh, I hate him.”

This is because these characters are, more or less, human. The problem with humans is that their motives aren’t always clear, and Lukyanenko doesn’t tell us everything we need to know to judge them properly. With the exception of Anton, who is a first-person narrator, we don’t get into their heads, and so can’t completely understand why they do what they do.

In this volume we are introduced to some new players, some grand plots and some terrible secrets. There is an Other out there who has knowledge that everyone thought was merely a myth: how to turn an ordinary human into an Other. The ramifications of such power are immense – there are few Others in the world as it is, and they hardly get along. To create new Others at will would mean chaos, death and destruction. All the Others’ forces are sent out to find this mysterious person. The Night Watch, the Day Watch and the Inquisition are in search of the impossible.

Anton Gorodetsky, of course, is on the front lines of this, searching for leads in a Moscow apartment complex. What he finds there isn’t quite the secret he thought it was, but it is something he never expected.

How about some free-market capitalism, Scarecrow?

In the second story of the volume, he meets an ancient witch, Arina, who may have single-handedly destroyed the Soviet Union’s potential for greatness. In his search to defeat her, he learns the true nature of the Others, what gives them their power and how they truly interact with the world around them.

And in the third story, the Fuaran has been found – the mythological text with the spell to convert humans to Others – and it will be used in a truly novel manner. But the Other behind the plan that could tip the world into supernatural anarchy is the last person Anton would have ever expected….

As with the other volumes, this one blurs the line between good and evil. It tells us what we already know, but don’t really want to admit: that good people can do evil things – start a bloody revolution, for example, or try to brainwash thousands of people – and that evil people can do good – save children from wolves, or avert a chaotic and terrible future. People do things for reasons that are sometimes known only to themselves, not out of a higher allegiance to the abstract concepts of “good” and “evil,” but for reasons that are intensely personal.

There are, however, times when labels work just fine.

It is something to be remembered. We have a habit of idolizing and demonizing people in this world, elevating them to paragons of virtue or sin, and ascribing motives to them that we think they acted by. But that doesn’t work. Even to the end, Anton believes he knows why the holder of the Fuaran wants to convert people into Others – to raise an army and control the world – but he’s so very, very wrong. The true reason is much more personal and, oddly, much more human than that.

That is probably the best lesson to be taken from these books. “Good” and “Evil” are tags that we affix to people because it saves us the effort of thinking about them. Behind every act, however, is a personal reason that defies such simplistic labeling. Every saint, every monster, is only human. Just like us. I don’t know if knowing that makes the world better or worse, but it at least makes it a little more familiar.

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“We weren’t meant to fly.
All we can do is try not to fall.”
– from The Twilight Watch

The Twilight Watch on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko’s website (in English)
The Twilight Watch on Amazon.com

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Filed under apocalypse, detective fiction, disaster, fantasy, morality, mystery, Russia, Sergei Lukyanenko, vampires, war, werewolves, witches, wizardry

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 33: Dresden Files 02 – Fool Moon

Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

“Hell’s Bells” count: 9

When a book about werewolves has a joke taken directly from Young Frankenstein (“Werewolf? There! There wolf! There castle!”), you know you’re in very good hands. That’s the kind of joke that a very small percentage of readers is going to get, but it’s guaranteed that those readers who do get it will be very appreciative.

Once again, consulting magician Harry Dresden has gotten himself into trouble. A few months ago, he nearly got himself killed taking down a drug-pushing warlock who wielded disturbingly strong levels of dark magic. Now, he has a different… hairier problem to deal with.

People are being ripped apart in Chicago. Not normal gangland killings, or even comfortable, familiar drug shootings, no. People are being literally torn apart, limb from limb, guts for garters, that sort of thing. The killings are violent and frightening, and both the Chicago police and the FBI would really like to know who’s behind them all. Unfortunately for Harry Dresden, all avenues point towards the supernatural.

If that weren’t bad enough, his talent for being in the wrong place at the wrong time has made Harry an object of suspicion almost any time something weird goes down. He’s used to that, though. What with just being relieved of the Doom of Damocles (a rather pretentious-sounding magical probation), and still being in the bad books of the White Council of Wizards, to say nothing of the powerful mobsters, Harry has more enemies than he can really keep up with. He doesn’t need any more, and he most certainly doesn’t need enemies that are red in tooth and claw.

For that matter, it would probably be simpler if it were just one werewolf. But it isn’t. Of even if it were just one kind of werewolf. Which it isn’t. Or even if all the werewolves in question were relentless, evil killing machines. Which, of course, they aren’t. Not all of them.

So now Harry has to throw himself into the fray again – to the wolves, as it were – and risk life and limb for people who don’t quite appreciate all the hard work he does. At least, not until a ravaging loup-garou nearly kills them all. But that would help anyone through a crisis of faith, I think.

As with the first volume in this series, I really enjoyed this book. Jim Butcher has an excellent sense of humor, and it really shines through in Harry’s narration. Dresden often breaks the fourth wall in his narrative, acknowledging to both himself and the reader that he’s about to do something that most people would consider to be insane.

One of the things I really enjoy about reading these books is the multi-sensory experience of reading them. Butcher knows that we have many senses, and also knows that a great number of writers only engage a couple of them. So he throws as much sensory information as he can at us, engaging our senses of touch and taste and smell to make the scene that much more convincing. What’s more, he has a gift for an economy of description – what’s the most important sensory input for each scene? He knows it, and focuses our attention on that.

Plus, he’s put together a very well-ordered magical universe. The rules are clear and binding, letting us know exactly what Harry can and cannot do in order to get out of his troubles. The work that Butcher has done in preparing the world of Harry Dresden shows up very clearly.

Of course, werewolves are fun monsters to play with, mainly because of their symbolic significance. Man and beast in one body, a loss of control and a joy in doing so – the werewolf is the beast we all fear to become. And this is important to Harry as well – as he tells us in this book and most of the others, he has a dark side to him. He knows what it’s like to reach into the bleak recesses of his soul and to use magic towards evil ends. He’s done it before, and the understanding that he could do it again is a shadow that constantly follows him. When he sees the various werewolves that are terrorizing the city, he sees himself in them. He sees the monster he could become, and he rejects it. Or at least holds it at bay for as long as he can.

It’s great to watch Harry, because he’s such an underdog. He gets beaten up, outsmarted, outclassed again and again, but he keeps coming back. He keeps finding that one little way through his problems that allows him to come through victorious. As far as he’s able to, anyway.

And in the end, isn’t that true for all of us?

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“Well, we’ll just have to hope that this wasn’t a loup-garou, I guess.”
“If it was a louper, you’d know. In the middle of this town, you’d have a dozen people dead every time the full moon came around. What’s going on?”
“A dozen people are dying every time the full moon comes around.”
– Harry Dresden and Bob, Fool Moon
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The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
Fool Moon on Wikipedia
Fool Moon on Amazon.com
Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
Harry Dresden on Wikipedia
Jim Butcher’s homepage

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Filed under detective fiction, Dresden Files, fantasy, Jim Butcher, mystery, werewolves, wizardry