Book: The night watch - Livre d'Or

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Book: The night watch
Tuesday, 07 March 2006 at 08:56 pm

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Author: Sean Stewart

Details: (c) 1997 Sean Stewart; Pub Ace 1998; ISBN 0-441-00554-3

Verdict: The night watch is a brilliant story.

Reasons for reading it: lethargic_man reminded me that I loved Nobody's son by the same author.

How it came into my hands: Birthday present from rysmiel, who is extremely good at presents.

The night watch works exceptionally well on the level of story. I was so caught up in the emotion, the wanting to know what would happen next, and just the general delight of reading that I find it hard to step back enough to write a sensible review. It's tempting to regard something which focuses that much on story as unsophisticated, but I think story done exceptionally well is just as much of an achievement as clever characterization and psychology, or clever intertextuality, or beautiful prose, or clever world-building and exploration of ideas. And actually, The night watch isn't lacking in those other virtues either, it's just that the story is superlatively brilliant while the other aspects are merely good but not exceptional.

There's a big cast, and I cared about all of them. The distributed viewpoint works particularly well; I couldn't identify a "main" character if I tried, but each of the several people who get bits of viewpoint is extremely real and sympathetic. And different from eachother, which is something that books with multiple viewpoints like this often get wrong. There is still a little bit of the tendency that annoyed me in Nobody's son to over-explain people's motivations when it's perfectly obvious from their actions how they feel, but it's much less bad and the characters are so vivid it doesn't matter. Water Spider in particular is a fascinating character with nearly enough contradictions to be real.

The story is also complicated and non-linear, and all the different bits fit together into a beautifully coherent whole. I really liked the interplay between the different human cultures and their deities, and the way the story is firmly anchored in this world's imagined future. Having part of the story set in a Canadian Chinatown is highly original, and handled very well; it's exploring the culture of people who are ancestrally Chinese rather than actually Chinese, and that's not something one sees a lot in fantasy. Which also means that tNW avoids relying on cheap exoticism, but manages to create a sense of the mystical all the same.

tNW is much darker than Nobody's son. The scary parts are really scary, even bordering on horror, and the characters, even the viewpoint characters and people who matter, are pleasingly mortal. I was particularly impressed with the scene where Nick is caught on the North Side and is dealing with both lethal cold and malevolent demons at the same time. There are places where the emotion is laid on a bit thick, but again, it's pretty skillful unsubtlety, all told.

I enjoyed the moral questions tNW explores, even more so because the philosophical bits are definitely subordinate to the story. There's enough explicit Christianity for me to get away with seeing Abraham and Isaac stuff going on, though tbh if it's Christian the subtext is probably as much the Father and the Son as the Genesis narrative. Another thing that's very cool, and handled delicately too, is the arc about staying alive to protect one's family rather than dying a hero's violent death, and how that choice is perceived when it's a man who makes it within a macho culture.

The other thing about tNW is that it has many of the good characteristics of the Northern Lights books without any of Pullman's bitterness or stupid épater la bourgeoisie polemic. I am very glad to discover that Pullman is not the only writer who can get right the sorts of things he does well, because I can't stand him.

My main criticism of tNW is that the ending is desperately weak. It goes on for five chapters after the point where it ought to end, and nothing happens in any of them. It was perfectly obvious that everybody was going to pair up like the finale of a comic opera (which is kind of annoying in itself, actually), so rambling descriptions of all the happy marriages is unnecessary as well as bathetic. It's a damn shame to spoil a really dramatic climax like that, especially as "Well?" Emily said. "It's time to go home." would have made a perfect closing sentence. Ah well.

Moooood: happyhappy
Tuuuuune: Alice Cooper: Elected
Discussion: 2 contributions | Contribute something

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rysmiel: wilde thing
Date:March 7th, 2006 09:10 pm (UTC)
13 minutes after journal entry, 05:10 pm (rysmiel's time)
*smile* yet another chance I get to say "oh goodie" about you enjoying something of which I am very fond. The distributed viewpoint thing in that is one of the very few examples I can think of where that technique has actually worked for me, it can so easily feel sloppy or lazy.

It's been a while since I read it, but am I right in thinking that thingummy-whose-name-escapes-me getting the art history encyclopedia entry [ trying desperately to find a way of phrasing this without spoilers, but heck, you know the one I mean ] is after the point at which you suggest it should end ? I would not have missed that, that was a thing with a really amazing impact for me.

Stewart does appear to be interested in trying to make work things comparable to where the Scouring of the Shire comes in pacing-wise in Lord of the Rings work, Clouds End in particular takes an interesting angle on that, and I read the ending of Night Watch as a take on that.
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livredor: livre d'or
Date:March 7th, 2006 09:35 pm (UTC)
37 minutes after journal entry, 10:35 pm (livredor's time)
*hug* Thank you so much.

The distributed viewpoint thing in that is one of the very few examples I can think of where that technique has actually worked for me
I think the key thing about it is that it's distributed; the story is properly and carefully shared out between the various characters, it's not just a convenient way of making sure the reader has all the information needed to understand the story. I generally find multiple viewpoints ok; I like it better if the people are characters rather than just cameras in the right place at the right time, but even the latter I don't mind. Although I started out with a more positive attitude than you, I think the way Stewart handles the technique is a particularly good example.

the art history encyclopedia entry
Yes, that is rather lovely, (and Wire's final encounter with the woodpecker god too), but it could have happened at any point, it didn't need an extended happy ever after scenario to support it. Actually, maybe what would have worked would be swapping the Wire chapter with the scenario I want at the end, where Emily brings the birds over the Bridge. That would have implied a happy ending for Wire, Raining and Lark without spoiling the structure.

Stewart does appear to be interested in trying to make work things comparable to where the Scouring of the Shire comes in pacing-wise in Lord of the Rings work
Well, I don't very much like the Scouring of the Shire either, so I guess that kind of structure is probably primed to fail for me. I dislike Frodo's vision of Sam's happy family life (and I dislike the equivalent scene with Carson's vision at the end of A tale of two cities, though admittedly I adored it when I first encountered the book at 12; I've badly outgrown it now). But at least they have the merit of being brief; a paragraph is enough to say that everybody gets married and has children and lives a life of domestic contentment; five chapters is too much for that. At least the Scouring has a point about things diminishing in spite of defeating Sauron; apart from the cute bit with Lark you've mentioned, there's nothing surprising in the ending of The night watch.
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