I think this one has a different translator than the previous novels in the series, but I can’t find out and it’s really bugging me. The writing felt different, but also didn’t, and “new translator” is the only explanation I can think of. It doesn’t really matter, but I’d quite like to know.
My feelings about the rest of this series have always been a bit mixed. A lot of what Lukyanenko does is quite a lot unlike what I’m used to in fantasy novels. And that’s not a bad thing, per se, but I’m not sure I like this specific incarnation of it. His main character tends to be painfully reflective about the Great Issues of Life, Death, Good, Evil, Communism and How Important And Amazing Russia Is No Seriously Guys I Mean It Russia Is Awesome. And I’m not an enormous fan of armchair philosophy. If it were actually deep, I might be able to tolerate it, or even enjoy it. Like if it raised legitimately (and non-obviously) thoughtful points about thoughtful important things. But it doesn’t. He just muses in a drunk-guy like fashion about some rather obvious topics. Some of it, I admit, is down to my own cultural context. I don’t think I am capable of understanding how a thirty-something (I think? I’m not actually certain how old Anton Gorodetsky is meant to be) Russian thinks about and interacts with the lingering effects and ideal of communism both in and outside of Russia. I just don’t have the mental equipment for it. I was only alive for two years before the USSR stopped happening, and the more of Lukyanenko’s books I read, the more I feel this is a handicap for my understanding of everything, from the big things, like Russian politics and Mosco… er… Moscovian? Muscovite? Moscowlish?… how Moscow stuff works, right down to the fundamental attitudes and characters he writes. I don’t think I can ever really get Anton Gorodetsky, because I’m just not Russian enough to understand him (this applies even to the not-entirely-Russian characters, because I’m missing the Russian perspective on how a super-old Tibeto-Dutch super wizard would think too). But this is a massive part of the lure too. I feel slightly guilty for saying so, because it’s kind of not the point, but I think I still read Lukyanenko’s books just because I don’t get them, and the weirdly Russian-ness of them is exciting and interesting. I come out of each sitting wanting to learn why everyone in the books seems to get called at least three different variants on their name, depending on who they’re talking to (and why the main character sometimes gets given a different surname… is it a patronymic? A continuity error? I have no idea!). I want to know why it appears that some cars in Moscow are allowed to have a flashing light on them that makes people get out of their way. No, not emergency services. Like actual cars. Is that a thing that really happens? It seems so ridiculous. But it’s part of the fabric of Russia as it’s written there, and not put out like a bit of fantasy, but like a part of the real world.
I guess, for me, the book has two sorts of fantasy in it. The obvious bit, with the vampires and enchantresses, and the Russian bit, because with the little I know about the country, it may as well be another world. And so I get double the enjoyment out of it, as I can pick apart the rules of the magic and the rules of reality with equal curiosity and delight.
I may have to carry on feeling guilty about that. I don’t really know why, if I’m truthful, but I get a very certain sense that it’s Not Okay. Hmmm.
That all aside, however, I’m not sure I really like the book. Or any of the series. There’s a fundamental pessimism that rather gets to you after a while, as well as the armchair philosophy, and a distressingly predictable-ness after a while. In the first book, some of the twists were quite twisty. To spoil a little, you did not expect things like “oh my god, it was the good guys doing that all along!”. But after four books, “oh wow, the super-scheming head of the Moscow good guys did a scheme? And he didn’t tell our slightly irritating protagonist? Again? Look at my face I am so surprised.” becomes really rather wearing. I think I was about twenty pages in and already going “I bet it’s one of Gesar’s schemes… go badger Gesar”.
Armchair philosophy-wise, we spend way, way too much time on the issue of good vs. evil and all the associated issues. I’m glad it’s not just cut and dried, black and white, we’re the goodies and that’s how it is. I truly am grateful for that. But we do not need to constantly labour the point that bearing the truce between the baddies and goodies (so there aren’t massive wars and destruction and whatnot) is so terribly terribly hard and ever so sad-making for the paragons of shiny virtue (and communism) that are the good guys of the book. Every. Single. Book. There has to be a bit where Anton goes all sad-face about how he can’t use his powers for VIRTUOUS RIGHTEOUSNESS AND SMIGHTING. And then a massive lecture about why not. And people occasionally popping and saying “but communism” and looking sad about it*.
The thing is, the author has a really good thing going with his truce between the Light and the Dark, and how their “watches” work as magical police to prevent one side giving advantages to the other by overstepping the mark. The idea that they police each other not to stop bad or good things happening, but because it is beneficial to each side to have a way of stopping there having to be concessions made to the other, is a really neat concept. The balance between the forces is clearly important in the context of their world, and it is made clear why it’s important, and why it’s more important than the forces of Light trying to triumph over the forces of Darkness, or vice versa. There’s even effort made to explain why people choose one or the other, without classifying the Dark magic users are necessarily evil. But it all gets laboured so much (even if some of the repetition throws up some quite cool ideas) that it stops being cool and exciting and starts becoming very very dull.
And it gets in the way of the plot, and increasingly more as the books go on. As stories, and just for their stories, they are good, classic, fun romps, with battles and demons and all sorts of excitement. But by the end of this book, which I am currently assuming is the last, the ratio of expositiony philosophising to plot has become untenable. Everything has just slid into the ridiculous a little bit. We have less and less and less interaction between characters, and more and more Anton Anton-ing about the place. For my taste, I would advise some heavy editing and a pointy stick being applied to the author until he started expositioning about something else for a change and made some plot happen. There’s a lot of great to work with, he just seems to bog himself down in things. I understand this, to an extent. I have been guilty of the essay that bundles most of the major points into a few paragraphs because 1,500 words got lost in a pit of “this really cool thought I had about verbs”. But I felt guilty about it. And a lot of the time I employed the heavy red pen so no one else had to sit through paragraphs of over-long sentences I knew would turn out to be what an awful lot of other people had already thought about verbs, and probably more coherently. Sometimes, no one else needs to hear what you think about something. I think this is one of those times.
That said, there is still, fundamentally, a good story going on underneath all of it. I was sufficiently sucked in that I nearly missed my tube stop at least twice. I’m not sure the good bits quite make up for the sucky ranting, but it’s close enough that I was willing and happy to finish the book and find out how it ended. I think I’ll go with “abruptly”. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was yet another sequel, and I probably would read it, but I think he should really stop here and go write something else… possibly with less moralising.
* For context, the premise in book… two… I think… of the series is that in the past, there have been big projects by the forces of magical good to try to change humanity for the better and to make them all super goodies and happy. Apparently Russian communism was one of these world-changing projects, but everyone is sad because it didn’t work, mope mope, weep, wail. I would be more sympathetic if I hadn’t read that little rant quite a few times now. Or y’know, see above, if I had the right cultural context to really understand it. Actually probably not. The repetition would still grate, I suspect.