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.