First a quick introduction. Each month in this column, I feature a different magic system – its limits, its powers, and its role in the novels. This time round, the series picked is Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch – and as always, for those who haven’t read the series (at least as far as Twilight Watch), there will be spoilers! They won’t, however, be particularly massive this time round, so don’t feel you need to run (or at least to click ‘back’).
The Night Watch series is a set of urban fantasies based mainly in Moscow, where – as in the rest of the world – the supernatural Others live alongside regular humans. The magic we’re talking about is theirs exclusively, and mostly is an inborn ability. As such, only the ‘low’ Dark Others, such as vampires and werewolves are able to create Others of their respective types from humans – or so, at least, is the prevailing thought. While in general I’m not a huge fan of genetic or inborn magic, the Watch series does treat it well – they recognise it’s unequal, and a fair part of the series involves various machinations around this. Being an Other has general benefits, but any more specific abilities depend on type: this is a general system of the supernatural, and as such it’s rather broad. For a start, they’re long-lived. Very long lived. Gesar – from the traditional epic of the same name – is the head of the Moscow Night Watch, and while it’s unclear whether he is the mythological figure himself… Well, I can say that a fair few other legendary figures pop up throughout the series.
For another, they can step into the Twilight: separate levels of reality. The further into the Twilight (though few can go that far), the less the effect of the real world and the slower time – so that’s one source of the Others’ abilities. However, this magic isn’t unlimited: it’s highly restricted by the Watches, who are in turn closely scrutinised. There is a balance between the Light and Dark Others imposed by the Inquisition – a third party who they’d really rather not offend. So for each effective act of magic by one side, another is permitted for the opposing – and these interventions are graded. Basically? Magically healing someone falls a little short when doing so allows your enemy to blow someone apart with a fireball…
As we discover later in the series, Others aren’t producers of magic – they’re actually deficient. And as is explained in terms of temperature, this causes the ambient magic produced by everyone else to flood in – which they can then use. They’re basically magical parasites – and the less they produce, the more powerful the Other. They’re ranked on a scale – the most powerful being a ‘zero point’, who produces none whatsoever.
Although it sounds fairly absolutist, the ‘Light-or-Dark’ choice is less clear cut than it seems – largely, which persuasion an Other joins is up to their state of mind at the time they’re initiated, however temporary. So if you’ve been stuck in a traffic jam for an age when someone turns up and tells you you’re an Other? Tough luck. It’s not, however, a choice between ‘good and evil’. Far from it. Dark Others use their powers mainly for themselves and believe in individual freedoms; Light Others mainly for others – but both have sympathetic characters, and both sides are just as scheming, manipulative, and generally ruthless as each other! (Which, needless to say, is fun to read)
Within each, individual abilities can range from general magic – magicians – to the use of artefacts – witches – to shapechanging (and that one’s obvious: shapeshifters). Though vampires are exclusively of the Dark persuasion… And no. They don’t sparkle.
DANGERS, LIMITS, AND COSTS
The main limit has already been mentioned – that imposed by the Watches. You have your quota of interventions at certain levels, and that’s it for major magic. But in terms of practical limits: well, those exist, too. The Twilight draws energy from Others – and if you don’t have enough to get back, you’re stuck. There are also restrictions to each type of Other, and just about anyone can be rendered helpless with enough preparation. Witches, for example, use artefacts to draw power from the Twilight. And hence, the obvious solution is to remove them…
MYSTERY VS RULES
Here, as with many others, it’s a combination. The limits are fairly clear, especially within each books: we know the basic weaknesses and what’s in play. However, when it comes to what spells the magicians use and how they work? For the most part, we don’t have a clue. The system is fundamentally rule-based in its generalities, but sufficiently mysterious to allow just about any new ability as needed. Which – as it happens – is kind of fun.
If you want a paranormal mythology with just a bit more logic to it, Lukyanenko’s Night Watch comes highly recommended.