I've spent a couple of months making my way through the first two books of Sergei Lukyanenko's Night Watch Trilogy classed variously as either fantasy or horror. So while waiting for the third book - Twilight Watch, to come out in the small paperback edition, I thought I'd record my thoughts of the series so far - Night Watch and Day Watch.
My interest in these books was piqued by the two movies so far released based on the novels. These movies, named after the respective books are triumphs of Russian Cinema, the highest grossing movies from the country, and marrying Russian cinematic artistry with hollywood blockbuster style. I love them.
The first thing to note about the books is that the Translation from the Russian is either lazy or inept. Small mistakes are like annoyances. Many languages put a gender in a word, such as French's Le and La. I assume Russian does the same. English does to a small extent as well, for instance, the female personification of Vampire is Vampiress, but vampire can easily refer to either sex, it is therefore extremely annoying to read the translation of "girl vampire" all the way through when considering a certain character especially when it is repeated in the same paragraph a few times. The translator is not credited, probably out of embarrassment.
While the translation is a minor annoyance, the greater annoyance comes from the author himself. Lukyanenko is a psychologist turned writer. And it shows. Even while reading through a half hearted translation, it is evident that Lukyanenko will only ever be a hack. This is frustrating as he has good ideas and his story is intriguing, if derivative.
The first mistake comes on line one with the word "I". Lukyanenko has built an entire fantasy world, populated it with witches, vampires, shape shifters, wizards, an age old conflict between light and dark, etc etc. He then proceeds to view the entire thing in the 1st person, through the eyes of his protagonist, Anton Gorodetsky. So Anton is our guide through the first book and part of the second. Unfortunately, this is literary suicide. The author has compromised his main character before he has escaped page 1.
When creating a novel, you can set it in the real world, or you can set it in a world of your own making. In the former, you can do what you like because the reader already knows and understands all the rules, regulations and nuances of this world. If you create your own world then you immediately limit yourself to a 3rd person omniscient narrator simply for the reason that the reader has no idea what is going on and there is therefore reams and reams of exposition to be got through before the story can even start, let alone explain all the various elements that will be added in over the course of the story. J.R.R Tolkien wrote The Lord Of The Rings with himself as narrator, as if he was sat beside you telling and explaining as he went, he could never ever have had the story narrated by Frodo Baggins (or anyone else) because Frodo would have had to stop every half paragraph, come out of character by breaking the fourth wall and explain to the reader what exactly Nazgul were, or why Saruman turned evil. It would have made a nonsense of this beautifully constructed fantasy.
This is exactly what happens in the Night Watch books. Anton (and others later on) is reduced to explaining everything to the reader, to someone who does not exist in Anton's contained world. It completely breaks his character, shatters the fourth wall of this self contained fantasy and destroys any belief in the world, no matter how carefully it is constructed. The author here belies his complete ignorance in literature by this single basic mistake.
As such I found these two books heavy going. Weighed down by wanting and trying to work around this problem and the leaden translation it took me well over two months to read both books despite them being a modest 400 pages each (each could easily have lost 100 pages or so with a denser, smaller typeface).
And yet, despite these problems, I pressed on to finish both books and am looking forward to getting stuck into the third. For a combination of reasons. Lukyanenko may not be a born writer, but he does have hold of a good story, a story hamstrung by his shortcomings as a writer, but nonetheless there is something there. All the more so for being Russian. We are so used to seeing Americanised versions of Vampires, werewolves and other fantasies that we forget that all these things originated in Eastern Europe, the birthplace of horror. Lukyanenko has taken a whole load of influences (including such things as Star Wars) and put a distinctly Russian spin on the proceedings. Half the fun is attempting to work out the bigger picture as Anton and his friends and enemies are just pawns in the giant chess game run by Geser and Zabulon, the leaders of light and dark. There are some genuine surprises and thrills, though don't expect the level that the films run at, which took selectively from the myriad of themes running through the books, put in a lot of good new stuff and upped the ante, the books are much more downplayed though also more balanced.
On a final note, while the writing was rather workmanlike and the translation just poor, the ending to the second book does in part make up for it, suddenly the writing takes off and soars in the speeches of an Igor Teplev, a young Wizard about to be executed for breaking the truce between light and dark. To find a genuine passage of great writing is always a pleasure because it means there may be more just ahead, and so I look forward to the next book and the resolution of this world.