By Christopher Thompson
Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch series is an example of a sub-genre I call “gothic noir.” Gothic noir combines the imagery of film noir- its gritty realism, its down-on-their-luck characters, moral ambiguity, and sense of fatalism- with the supernatural themes and concepts of horror fiction. As the result naturally involves placing the mythic in a modern and streetwise context, pretty much any gothic noir would also be mythorealist by default:
The world of noir is already a horrifying place- people are accused of crimes they didn’t commit, but then again they can’t be sure they’re really innocent; the past is an inescapable force that makes choices irrelevant and true freedom impossible; no statement can be taken at face value and love leads almost inevitably to betrayal. In such a world there is no escape and little chance of survival… Some writers and filmmakers have taken this concept further, introducing elements of supernatural horror to noir’s grimly romantic world, or placing archetypal noir characters in a horror setting… This borderland dates back to the beginning of the noir style… Despite this history of overlap between the styles, this borderland has only just begun to be explored. Noir’s no-escape mindset would seem to be an ideal match for the darkness of horror fiction. There’s a lot more exploration to be done. (From the article “Gothic Noir” on the Noir Originals website)
At the time that I wrote these words for Noir Originals, I didn’t feel that most of the available work in this sub-genre had lived up to its potential. A great deal more gothic noir has been published since then under the label of “urban fantasy,” and most of it has been conspicuously unimaginative- “Sam Spade vs. Dracula” would about sum it up, with a number of equally dull variations such as a private eye who happens to be a werewolf or a witch or an escapee from Hell.
But then there is Night Watch. In the first volume of Sergei Lukyanenko’s tetralogy, Anton Gorodetsky is a low-level mage in the employment of the Night Watch, a kind of police force of the magical world. His job is to monitor Dark Others (vampires, witches and the like) to make sure they aren’t violating the ancient Treaty that governs the Cold War between Dark and Light. Naturally the Dark Others have a Day Watch to police the Light Others, and the machiavellian plotting and counter-plotting between the rival agencies provides the primary conflict in the series.
The eternal struggle between Dark and Light is nothing new- not only is it the oldest cliche in fantasy fiction, it was also the basis of the Zoroastrian and Manichean religions, as well of the Bogomil and Cathar heresies- but Lukyanenko has no intention of letting things remain that straightforward. Our hero, Anton Gorodetsky, is not initially very good at his job, but he does have a strong moral center- something you might assume that all the Light Others would have, but then you would be wrong.
It turns out that the Light Others feed on the pleasant and happy emotions of ordinary humans, draining them for magical power and thus leaving them depressed and lonely. The Dark Others feed on the negative emotions, with the result that contact with a Dark Other makes you feel better. On the other hand, the joy that the Light Others steal from you will return even stronger, as will the sorrow the Dark Others steal. The Light Others help you in the end, but they make you feel bad in the short term, while the Dark Others are the reverse. Both classes of Others are essentially parasitic, depending on humans for magical energy.
The Dark Others are nihilists, believing in sociopathic selfishness as their only philosophy. The Light Others are idealists, believing that they can create the perfect world if only the Dark Others would stop interfering. Communism and Nazism? Creations of the Light Others, subsequently corrupted by the Dark Others to prevent their victory. Joan of Arc, on the other hand, was a Dark Other. The Dark Others include creatures such as vampires and werewolves that prey on the living by their very nature. Not all of them are malicious, however, and some are capable of love and kindness. The witch Alisa Donnikova in the second novel of the series, Day Watch, is doomed by her love for Zabulon, the Day Watch commander, and even more so by her love for a Night Watch agent whom she fails to recognize as her enemy.
Many of the Night Watch agents- particularly the commanding officers- have become so morally corrupted by centuries of warfare, manipulation and compromise, that it is impossible to describe them as “the good guys” and the Day Watch as “the bad guys.” Rather, there is a growing sense that the whole thing is a sham, an artificial structure in which the only real difference between the Watches is the difference between the wolf and the shepherd- which, to a sheep being fattened for slaughter, is an academic distinction. Night Watch operative Anton Gorodetsky must navigate this treacherous world to the best of his ability, seeking not only to do his job but to retain his soul. In tackling morally significant questions with a serious attitude, Lukyanenko’s work stands on a different level than virtually everything else in the gothic noir category.
Author of A Season of Strange Dreams, an urban fantasy novel available as a Kindle e-book from Dark Quest
“An astonishing tour de force of noir fantasy, characterized by some of the most beautifully lyrical, atmospheric writing I’ve come across in a long while. Chris Thompson skilfully blends the mean streets with the streets of dreams in this highly evocative concoction, offering the reader bafflement, dazzlement, gritty hard-boiled realism, wonder and astonishment in turn – but always delight. A Season of Strange Dreams will remain in your mind long after you’ve turned the final page.” (John Grant, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy)