Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Night Watch

Set in modern day Russia, Night Watch is the first book in a science fiction/fantasy series that rises above the mold. The concept is inherently simple, but analyzed from a point of view that makes it endlessly compelling.
The Watches and The Others

There are two sides: the Night Watch and the Day Watch. Contrary to what you would expect, the Night Watch is composed of the forces of Light, whose job it is to sheriff over the forces of Darkness (whose time of power is the night) and make sure they don’t get too out of hand. By contrast, the Day Watch is staffed by members of the darker side who watch the forces of Light to make sure they don’t get too uppity. The important thing here is that the purpose of the Watches isn’t to fight evil or good respectively; their job is to maintain a balance and a peace wherein the sides aren’t warring with each other, instead spending their energies maintaining a bloodless ceasefire.

Those who populate the Watches are known as “Others”. These Others are people with extraordinary powers, fantastical in nature, that separate them from other human beings. These often manifest in forms we are used to; the Day Watch has many vampires, werewolves, and Dark magicians among their staff. But there are also original ideas in the book that add extra layers of interest to what would be otherwise standard fantasy fare. The concept of “the Twilight” is a major one: a parallel reality that Others can venture into in order to see the world as it truly is, with multiple levels that reveal different aspects of the environment around them. Another is how the concept of probability can be manipulated by those with and without power, a trick that can manifest in the form of swirling vortexes of bad luck ominously hanging above peoples’ heads. I, no doubt, am making it sound kind of complicated, but the author’s easily understandable prose puts it in a form that is as accessible as it is addicting.
Ambiguity of Ethics in a World Without Absolutes

What Night Watch’s greatest strength is, however, is its willingness to delve into the ethical dilemmas that arise from a system such as this. Night Watch follows the travails of one low-level Night Watch agent, Anton Gorodetsky, and through him we see how difficult it is to make decisions that are wholly good in a world of grays and murkiness. For the Night Watch, though populated by those who we would call “good guys”, has to make many really tough calls. When forced to choose between saving one person or another, how do you choose? Is it good to compromise with evil if it means saving more lives than you would have otherwise? Is it ethical to have a system where you collaborate with evil to preserve peace instead of war? How do you know if your actions are good if you can’t foresee the consequences that may arise from them?

It is questions like these that are prevalent throughout the novel and are given center stage through the actions and ruminations of Anton, who is a man trying to do good in a world that seems designed to embroil him with incredibly tough moral dilemmas. To that point, he finds himself questioning his purpose, his “enemies”, and even his own side in an effort to be the best man he can be.

I found Night Watch to be incredibly compelling to read. I’m definitely attracted to complex questions in stories, and Night Watch is chock full of them. But I would point out that it isn’t an uplifting book. Not only is it written by a Russian (and, no offense to Russians, but historically they tend to write some pretty depressing shit), but it is heavily weighed down by one man questioning himself constantly and his purpose in life. We all ask ourselves questions like Anton does, which is a big part of what makes the book resonate so powerfully. But it is worth noting that, if you are looking for just a straight-up action oriented sci fi/fantasy novel, this is not what you are looking for.

But, then again, if you are open to the idea of an exciting, philosophical, and well-written book that does not shy away from questions and situations that make you sit back and ponder, then this comes highly recommended. Magic, vampires, demons, and stories of good versus evil don’t come much better than this.

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