Wednesday, March 11, 2009

[Lisa’s Take] Last Watch (Sergei Lukyanenko)

I kind of never thought this book would come out in the US. After all of the drama with the movie side of things, and after the release date getting pushed back so many times, I had pretty much given up hope on ever getting to read the final book in the Night Watch series. I was down about it, but more or less resigned to my fate.

So you can imagine the sound I made when I saw Last Watch on the shelf – or rather the string of excited curses that were entirely inappropriate for a quiet little bookstore, but that escaped before I could contain myself. This was the 3rd fantasy release in a week that caught me totally off guard, and definitely the most thrilling of the 3.

It occurs to me that many people might not be familiar with this little gem of the fantasy, so let me explain a bit. The Night Watch quartet is a series of books by Russian fantasy author Sergei Lukyanenko. They qualify for my mental niche of “massively multi-genre fantasy.” The books are set in modern day Russia, so they have a dash of “urban fantasy.” The books are built on the premise that in addition to humans, there are people who are called Others who have other-worldly powers. These Others fall into two factions – Light Others and Dark Others. The Light Ones have the powers that we usually equate with high fantasy – witches, prescience, healing, spell casters. The Dark Ones have powers from the “fantasy horror” end of the spectrum – vampires, werewolves, dark wizards. A truce was made between the Light and Dark to prevent them from warring each other into oblivion, and the Night Watch was set up as a coalition of Light Ones to watch over and monitor the Dark Ones, while the Day Watch was set up as a coalition of Dark Ones to monitor the Light Ones. Maintaining the balance of power is paramount, and the main character spends a lot of time playing a political balancing game while philosophizing about the nature of good and evil. Add that dash of political fantasy and philosophy, and you have a book series that touches on practically every fantasy sub-genre there is.

The books garnered enough claim in Russia to inspire a movie that smashed all sorts of nation-wide box office records. In 2004 the movie was subtitled for an English audience (with awesomely engaging text, I might add – lots of interesting after-effects and interplay with the on-screen action). It was pretty well received, though it never saw more than a limited release in independent theaters. The film did well enough to secure the US-release of the second movie, Day Watch, which also gained the attention of Fox Searchlight. Good old Fox secured the rights to the 3rd movie and promptly ditched most of the original cast and ran the project into the ground.

Luckily, the movies did well enough to inspire Miramax to pick up the novels, translate, and publish them in the US. I loved the movies for their somewhat bizarre, abrasive, but engaging approach to dark fantasy, and I especially loved their take on magic. As such, when I saw the books on the shelves I picked them up right away. I never got around to writing full reviews for any of the books in the series, but I figured that I should at least highlight them in this blog as I finished up the final installment.

I really can’t say enough good about the Night Watch books – they are an incredibly fresh breath of air amidst all of the ho-hum, been-there-done-that fantasy on the market these days. They make me wish that the US saw more foreign translations, because it’s just a marvelous experience. The premise of the series at first glance seems a little “comic bookish” (not to disparage any of the excellent graphic novels out there) but the deep characterizations and human aspects of the main characters, as well as the keen examination of “good” and “bad” really elevates the whole shebang to a higher level. For all their depth the books still read incredibly quickly, but manage to be both emotionally engaging and have a dash of self-aware humor that keeps it interesting. All four books are great, but I will say that Last Watch was the strongest, and finished off the series on a high note for me.

Well, this has gotten longer than I expected, so I’ll wrap it up. Procure these books. Read them all in a long weekend. They’re so very worth it, and a great change from the established fantasy norm in the US. Also, if you happen to read them without seeing the movies first, I’d love to hear your feedback, as I’m not sure how much my prior exposure to the films influenced my opinions. Happy reading!

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