Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Review: Night Watch by Sean Stewart

This is one of those incomplete reviews I write every so often when I make it a significant way into a book (at least 150 pages or so) but just can't find the interest or enthusiasm in me to finish reading.

The book in question is Night Watch by Sean Stewart, a writer who has received high praise for other novels such as Resurrection Man, Perfect Circle, and Galveston. This is the first book of his that I tried to read, and I think I may have picked one of his less successful efforts.

Stewart writes some beautifully evocative prose, and that's what kept me reading as long as I did. I found the dialogue less successful, but enjoyable at times. The setting just did not hold together well for me, and the plotting was uneven at best. The experience of reading the novel was akin to that of watching an artsy version of an action movie made by a gifted cinematographer and a below-average director.

Throughout the book I had the feeling that I had picked up the second or even the third book in a series, one in which all the characters have already been introduced and a certain amount of their intertwined personal histories played out. However, though this novel is set in the same broad setting as Resurrection Man, in which magic is reintroduced to the world following World War II, it apparently takes place long after the events in the earlier novels.

Two hundred pages into this book I couldn't tell you who the main characters were or what exactly their goals were aside from "try to save Vancouver's Chinatown from destruction" for a number of them. I didn't come across any characters that I liked with the possible exception of Wire and Ant-something-or-other, and I really didn't care what happened to any of them.

As far as the unusual setting, a future that mixes various levels of technology with the presence of uncontrolled magical forces, I have no real sense of how magic is supposed to work in this setting, which is always a problem for me, though not for everyone. Magic without limits or rules communicated in some fashion to the reader becomes, in my view, a plot device that is too easy to abuse.

More significantly, I don't know how the people in this setting really view magic. There are a bunch of tough, militaristic white Canadians who are supposed to have a very rational view of the world because they've pushed the magic away into one corner of their city. This seems kind of unbelievable to me, but the real shocker was having a character named Claire, whose mother was a Hawk Goddess called the Harrier, express skepticism about the "superstitious" nature of the Chinatown inhabitants. I would think that her own origins would have cured her of any such traits. And the people of Chinatown are afraid of these white techno-magical cyborg soldiers they've hired as mercenaries, but it's patently obvious that these guys are no match for the magical "Gods" or Powers that live in and around Chinatown.

Ultimately I didn't finish the novel because I didn't trust the author to answer any of the questions that I was interested in. There's a scene where Stewart goes on for at least six pages about a character's efforts to build a fire to save himself. Now, to begin with, I was not invested in that character at that point in the narrative. Even if I was, six pages of him repeating the same basic actions over and over to stave off the cold and get a fire lit was severe overkill. And then the character disappears, at least for the next 100+ pages that I bothered to read. Why on Earth invest that much narrative and reader effort in the struggles of a bit character who is only going to disappear?

Later on, Stewart sets up a scene when several characters are about to embark upon a dangerous attempt to save the life and possibly the soul of a man trapped by demons. Their main resources are the fighting experience of a 95 year old man and the magic sword that his son has brought him. Then Stewart chooses to skip over that scene entirely. We rejoin the characters after they have completed the mission successfully.

The experience of those two scenes encapsulated much of the novel for me. Pages of descriptive prose spent upon topics that I would have happily devoted at most a paragraph of my attention to, and a complete overlooking of various scenes that would have interested me.

I think that in this novel this tendency to toss key scenes "off-screen" and spend time on odd little exchanges goes beyond a quirky choice to emphasize certain literary elements over "less sophisticated" action sequences. It's more like the novel just has no focus, no sense that when you set up the audience to anticipate a big confrontation and then just blow it off as an afterthought, you're toying with them. It felt like a bait and switch. If he wanted to write an atmospheric novel about unlikable characters in a dreamlike setting, I don't think he should have included the military aspects and the battle for the city, because they just don't work here.

Based on his reputation, I'd like to give another Stewart novel a try, but it will be a while before I bother to get around to it. I think I'd rather read a book of poetry by Stewart as opposed to a book of prose.

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