The Phantom Menace
By Sergei Lukyanenko
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield
Miramax. 455 pp. Paperback, $13.95
Brace yourself for Harry Potter in Gorky Park. Sergei Lukyanenko's Night Watch is the beginning of a sprawling fantasy series set in modern-day Moscow about a young man and his owl, who belong to a magical police force that protects humanity from "vampires, werewolves, incubuses and succubuses, active witches, all sorts of troublesome riffraff from the lower levels." The first volume ( Nochnoi Dozor ) appeared in Russia in 1998, and so far the trilogy has sold more than 3 million copies abroad. Director Timur Bekmambetov originally planned a television series based on the books but instead produced a lush, violent and baffling movie (with lots of product placement) that was hailed as post-Soviet Russia's first blockbuster. Fox Searchlight released it in the United States this spring with enough magic to trick fantasy-thriller fans into seeing a movie with subtitles (the DVD, dubbed in English, went on sale this summer), and two more installments are already headed our way. Till then, you can play the "Night Watch" video game from CDV Software ($39.99). Action figures at McDonald's can't be far behind.
But what about the book -- just published in America -- at the center of this international vortex of spin-offs? The key to its wild popularity in Mother Russia may be the way Lukyanenko recasts Russia from a bankrupt, has-been world power to a place where the forces of Good and Evil will finish their long battle. Communism, you see, was just an experiment that went awry in a land where experiments can still take place. The Moscow of Night Watch may look gritty and grim, but within its murky new freedom anything might happen. "The potential of Europe and North America has already been exhausted," Lukyanenko writes. "Everything that was possible has already been tried there. . . . All those countries are already half asleep. A healthy retiree in shorts with a digital camera -- that's the prosperous countries of the West. We need to experiment with the young ones."
But for Muggles who live outside that land of grand potential, say, in one of those exhausted, prosperous countries of the West, this fantasy novel's appeal will have to rest on its characters, its suspense and its themes. At the risk of being cursed by a Dark Magician, I have to say that's a long shot. Night Watch suffers from the pretentiousness and humorlessness that frequently weigh down stories that capitalize the words Good and Evil, as in "Evil has no need to bother with eliminating Good. It's far simpler to let Good fight against itself." I must remember this the next time my wife claims the car is making a funny noise.
The story involves a race of super-humans called the "Others," who live and work alongside us, feeding off the negative or positive mental energy that ordinary human beings produce. They fade in and out of a gray fourth dimension known as the Twilight that overlays our natural world. These Others are born to regular human parents, but when each Other comes of age, he or she must choose to join the Light or the Dark side: "If you always put yourself and your own interests first, then your path leads through the Darkness. If you think about others, it leads toward the Light."
If you've studied the Gospel According to George Lucas, you'll recognize the sappy metaphysics of Night Watch , but Lukyanenko lays on a heavy gloss of realpolitik : The forces of Light and Dark are locked in a thousand-year-old Cold War, bound by an ancient truce that keeps the world from being destroyed. Each side maintains a Watch to ensure that the opposite side is not violating the terms of the peace treaty by interfering illegally with the direction of human history. Large sections of the novel sound like Henry Kissinger channeling Obi-Wan Kenobi on the importance of maintaining this balance of power, even if innocent individuals must be sacrificed along the way.
Anton, the narrator, is a low-level member of the Night Watch, the officers who keep track of the Dark Others. Like any good young hero, he's just an ordinary guy (with superpowers) who is told at the crucial moment: "Now you're our only hope." He's deeply conflicted about the nature of his work, he's frustrated by the wrong-headed orders that come down from on high, and, of course, he falls in love with the woman he's sent to protect. She's a beautiful doctor named Svetlana, who doesn't initially realize she's an Other with enormous magical power (which makes you wonder how good a doctor she is).
The overarching plot of the novel concerns Anton's reluctant participation in Svetlana's recruitment, training and preparation for a dangerous interference in the Destiny of mankind: a little boy, whom both sides hope to claim as their Great One. In each of the novel's three sections, Anton struggles through a torturous crisis of faith that leads up to a climactic confrontation with the forces of Evil, only to realize in the final paragraphs that his boss, a Great Magician of the Light, has planned the whole thing as a decoy to distract everyone (including us) from some secret plan off-stage. The trick ending of the first section was fairly clever; the trick ending of the second section was a little annoying; and by the end of the third, I wanted to shove somebody's magic wand up the Dark Place.
This is a shame because the novel contains some captivating scenes and all kinds of marvelous, inventive detail: The vampires' seduction of a teenage boy is bone-chilling; every time Lukyanenko described the Other-worldly Twilight, I felt lured into it; and the fantastical powers exercised by Anton and his colleagues range from delightful to awesome: changing the weather in the living room, transforming into animals, "remoralizing" whole blocks of people. But the clunky language of Night Watch in translation constantly shatters its magic: As a girl-vampire moves in for the kill, for instance, Anton says, "Things were looking really bad now." A few pages later, he tells us, "This was getting really interesting!" When he gets rescued by a passing car, he says, "Things like this just didn't happen! Heroes only got rescued by passing cars in cheap action movies."
Say, there's an idea. Or maybe a TV show. Or a sequel. And a video game.
Use the Force, Luk. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.