The Night Watch, by Sergei Lukyanenko, trans Andrew Bromfield

New blood for old yarns as vampires stalk Russia
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When a particular kind of story, heavily based in one culture, gets transferred into a culture distinctly different, something magical happens. The Night Watch and the trilogy of which it is part belongs to a sub-genre of supernatural thriller well-known in the West since Bram Stoker's Dracula and its myriad successors - not the least worthwhile of which was Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

A long period of official materialist disdain for that sort of thing meant that Russia ended up with a huge gap in its literature of the fantastic. The nation that produced the weirder stories of Gogol and Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita had to wait a long time for something modern, new and distinctly creepy.

In Sergei Lukyanenko's series of Russian bestsellers, the hero Anton is one of the Others, the magicians and similar beings who move among us. He opted to serve in the Night Watch, the organisation committed to the Light, which quietly protects us from vampires and curses and things that go bump.

In the three tales included in this first volume of his adventures, he moves steadily towards centre-stage. The naive young man, with his good heart and quiet capacity for ruthlessness in the name of what he thinks is right, progressively becomes a player in the constant game of bluff and counter-move between his masters and those of the Darkness.

In a society in crisis, this sort of tale was always going to have some sort of mundane resonance, even a satirical edge. The immortal wizard whom Anton has as a manager operates in magic-soaked Moscow like a Soviet bureaucrat, making strategic trades with the forces of evil and engaging in private scams for his own benefit.

One of the ways in which Good keeps Evil under control is by permitting a certain amount of victimisation of humans; vampires can feed on humans as long as they have a licence for that victim. And there is nothing so dangerous as a freelance vampire hunter who does not understand the checks and balances of the rules.

In these three fluent novellas, it can sometimes seem as if Lukyanenko is making up the limits of his hero's power and the constraints under which he works as he goes along. Yet the whole farrago continues to work because the magic is rooted in the realities of modern Russia.

When, for example, Anton needs to talk to a woman doctor with a curse on her so devastating that it might bring universal catastrophe, he simply asks to see her, in the middle of the night, for a private consultation about his ulcers.

In the fight against evil, cheap vodka sometimes serves where Anton's limited abilities would not. The Night Watch is inventive, sardonic and imbued with a surprising sense that, for this author and his audience, much of this stuff is new-minted.

Roz Kaveney's 'Teen Dreams' is published by IB Tauris

Comments