This week I’m recommending Urban Fantasy Russian style. The recent appearance of a fifth volume in  Sergei Lukyanenko’s `Night Watch’ series has reminded me of just how fascinating these books are. Volume One was first published in English in 1988 and shouldn’t be confused with Sarah Waters’ more recent historical novel, `The Night Watch’. You can get  Lukyanenko’s novel in paperback or as an ebook but be a little wary of the films based on his fiction. The film `Night Watch’ only covers about the first third of the novel. Even more confusingly, the film `Day Watch’ is also mainly based on `The Night Watch’, rather than on its sequel, `The Day Watch’.  These films use characters and incidents from`The Night Watch’ but drastically change the plot. They are enjoyable horror films in their own right but are much less subtle and interesting than the novels.

In Lukyanenko’s fiction there is a multi-layered parallel world known as the Twilight, which can only be entered by Others. Recognizable by their auras, Others are humans who are born different and display an aptitude for magic. Among the Russian Others there are magicians and witches, seers, shape-shifters and vampires. A person’s mood or mental attitude when they first enter the Twilight usually determines whether they become a Dark or a Light Other. Dark Others use their magic to gratify their own desires and they draw power from negative human emotions such as anger and misery. Light Others try to use their magic for good and draw power from postive human emotions such as love and joy – though there isn’t much of the latter in contemporary Russia. The two sides fought for centuries causing terrible devastation to the human world until a peace treaty was signed. Each major city now has a Night Watch, a group of Light Ones who protect humans at night, and a Day Watch, a group of Dark Ones who protect their own interests. There are strict rules, policed by a neutral Inquisition, about how much either side can interfere in the lives and fates of ordinary humans. The heavy  price of peace is that there must be an equal number of Light and Dark interventions.

`The Night Watch’ is divided into three stories which are more closely connected than they initially appear to be. Most of the book is narrated by Anton Gorodetsky, a low grade Light magician who only discovered that he was an Other in his mid-twenties. Since then, Anton has been doing a desk job in the headquarters of the Moscow Night Watch. He is content with this dull life and even gets on well with the family of Dark vampires who live in his appartment block. Then Boris Ignatievitch (Gesar), the long-lived leader of the Night Watch, insists that Anton does some fieldwork, which includes tracking unlicensed vampires. While riding the Metro, Anton notices Svetlana, a  young woman with a black curse vortex hanging over her. Anton drains his protective amulet  trying to remove the curse but then has to get off the train to follow his target. He catches two vampires trying to lure a young boy called Egor. Anton kills the male vampire but the female one escapes and the boy has disappeared.

Anton soons finds that he is in all kinds of trouble. Zabulon, the terrifying head of the Day Watch is rumoured to be angry with him for killing a vampire, so Boris Ignatievitch assigns Anton an unusual partner, Olga, a Light Enchantress who has been transformed into an owl for some past crime.  A Dark Witch called Alisa catches Anton illegally using his powers for good and when Anton tries to protect Egor from the female vampire, it transpires that the boy is an emerging Other who has yet to choose between Light and Dark. Meanwhile the curse on Svetlana has become so powerful that it may destroy the whole of Moscow. Anton manages to work out the origin of the curse but Svetlana remains a dangerous person to know. As the story continues, Anton is framed for a murder he didn’t commit and is forced to fight a mysterious serial killer known as `The Judge’ . He comes to realize that he, Svetlana and Egor are all being used in the great game between Boris Ignatievitch and Zabulon, a game in which the prize seems to be the Chalk of Fate that can rewrite the destiny of the world…

Yes, there is no shortage of plot in `The Night Watch’. It’s a story full of startling twists and dramatic revelations which change Anton’s view of everything that has gone before. Events are being manipulated for unknown reasons and Anton learns to be as wary of his colleagues in the Night Watch as he is of his official enemies in the Day Watch. Much of the book reads like a supernatural version of John le Carré’s Smiley novels, so if you like complicated spy stories, you will probably enjoy this book.  As Anton becomes increasingly attracted to troubled Svetlana,`The Night Watch’ also turns into an unusual love story. Not many novels deal honestly with the problems faced by a man who falls in love with a woman who is much more powerful than himself.

The Russian setting also helps this series to stand out from the mass of Urban Fantasy that’s on offer. Lukyanenko can draw on Russian folklore to make his werewolves, vampires and witches distinctive. Did you know that Russian vampires react badly to vodka? Quite a disadvantage. I did feel that I’d learned a lot about post-Communist Russia by reading this novel. It’s a portrait of a society living in the aftermath of a gigantic failed experiment. There are new freedoms, which no-one quite knows how to use, but there is also chaos and corruption. No wonder Anton gets into trouble for `remoralising’ one of the petty criminals who make people’s lives a misery.  There is plenty of wry humour in Anton’s narrative but you can rely on Russian characters to  have deep, soulful and often melancholy conversations, even when they are supposed to be enjoying themselves at a party thrown by a were-tiger. Russian novelists have never been shy about dealing with big emotions and big issues. It is no accident that the first part of `The Night Watch’  is called `Destiny’ as the story queries  how far anyone is in charge of their own destiny and whether visionary leaders can or should shape the destiny of all humanity.

`The Night Watch’ is very far from being a straightforward battle between good and evil. Anton believes that the Dark Ones can only be eradicated if humans cease to have the negative emotions which the Dark Ones feed on, but altering states of mind involves tampering with free-will. In other books in the series, Lukyanenko writes sympathetically from the point of view of Dark Others. The witch Alisa flits in and out of the ongoing storyline as a kind of anti-heroine, who is shown to have a passionate love for her country. Disturbingly, the novel raises the question of whether the Night Watch’s well-meaning attempts to do good, have actually ended up causing more harm than the mere selfishness of the Day Watch. Anton Gorodetsky begins as an everyman figure but gradually acquires the powers of a `Great One’. He still tries to do the right thing but can never be quite sure that he has. That is what keeps the `Nightwatch’ series interesting. Until two weeks time…