Why I love….. Sergei Lukyanenko

It’s been absolutely AGES since I did one of my Why I love…. blog posts, so I thought it was time to resurrect it as a feature! If you’re new to This Girl’s Book Room, the idea behind these posts is super-simple: I pick one of my favourite authors, then tell you what it is that makes me love them so much, and why you should try their books if you haven’t already. Today it’s the turn of an author who I think deserves a wider readership outside of those who naturally gravitate towards fantasy or horror: Russian writer extraordinaire, Sergei Lukyanenko. Without further ago, here’s why I love him so much.

He has an appeal that goes beyond fantasy fans

One genre conspicuously absent from my blog is, as I’m sure you will have noticed, fantasy or fantasy-horror. My general rule of thumb is that is if a book features either a map or an absurd fantastical character name on the first page then I’m not going to like it. I just about made it through Lord of the Rings and even slogged my way through a Juliet Marillier novel to prove to a friend I was willing to try something different, but nope, I’m definitely more at home in a real-world setting. I really thought, then, when The Night Watch (the series’ first book) was recommended to me, it was going to be another politeness read – but no! To my joy it’s set in modern day Russia (and other countries as well later in the series) and despite the presence of vampires, werewolves and magicians it’s fully grounded in a recognisable world.

Sexy vampires? Not here, thank you very much.

Let’s be honest, the constant fetishization of vampires is a bit yawnsome isn’t it? That’s not to say it can never be successful, but I for one was mightily relived that there are no brooding, sultry bloodsuckers here – at least none who take on that role unironically. On the surface Lukyanenko’s vampires appear almost no different to everyday people: they’re licensed, regulated, and most of them go about their business in a law-abiding fashion while holding down apparently normal lives in Russia’s capital city.

His books will make you think. And then think again.

There are 6 books in The Night Watch series, and while I’d say the first one is probably the biggest mind-bender of the lot, all of them have complex and well-executed plotlines and even more complex characters. The novels imagine a world in which magical forces are battling and collaborating by turns to maintain the elusive balance between Light and Dark that keeps society running as it should. There are constant questions being asked of the characters, and by extension the readers, about the nature of the false binary that we conventionally term “Good” and “Evil”. What sacrifices are acceptable in the pursuit of a greater good? Is it possible to do the right thing without ever having to compromise on your values? And most importantly, is there such a thing as being unequivocally on a single side?

Anton Gorodetsky

Light Magician Anton Gorodetsky is hands down one of my favourite literary creations. Despite having the power to rip dark magicians to shreds in battle, Light Other Anton is still somehow an everyman, walking the streets of Moscow alongside its human inhabitants while juggling the blessing of extreme power with the crushing curse of responsibility. I think that’s the secret to how Lukyanenko manages to make you so attached to him; despite his fantastical abilities he’s more human than many mortal characters we come across in the course of our reading lives. When I parted company from him at the end of book 6 I was broken.

I really hope I’ve tempted you into trying this fabulous Russian writer, especially if you’ve always thought he wouldn’t be up your street. Definitely start with The Night Watch, as this is not one of those series you can join part way through and not lose out. If you’ve read these books already, I would love to know what you think! Thanks for reading and see you back on the blog soon.

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The Ghost Stories of M R James – review

I’m actually quite proud of myself for even allowing this story collection into my home! I don’t mind admitting I’m the world’s biggest coward when it comes to anything vaguely supernatural; there’s a frantic scramble to change the channel when even just the trailer for a spooky programme comes on TV, and quite frankly the thought of consuming any paranormal entertainment by design is pretty much unthinkable. So when my sister recommended this book to me, to say I was wary would be an understatement, and I was completely shocked when not only was I not overly terrified, but I actually enjoyed it.

If you’re of a fragile disposition like me, I think it definitely helps that most of the stories are framed by an objective narrator, who passes on the story second hand after talking to a friend, finding a documented account and so on. This keeps the ghostly action contained within the tales one step removed if you like, and it’s a comfort to come back to the safety of a (surviving!) narrator and a sense of reality after any creepiness is over and done with. Having said that, it’s very much a mixed bag of scariness, ranging from the mildly sinister to the fairly disturbing, and which ones linger in the mind most will probably vary very much from reader to reader: out of all the stories, I count myself fortunate that only one came back to bother me in the middle of the night! (If you have even a slight aversion to puppets, then avoid “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance” – you have been warned).

The author definitely has some favourite themes, returning to them a number of times in the course of the collection. There are a lot of stories that take place in and around churches or cathedrals – unsurprising perhaps given the wealth of potentially spooky material attached to these places, but I didn’t mind the repetition of the setting as these tales in particular appealed to me. The notion of revenge or punishment is also a prevalent idea; many of the stories’ victims are hounded by supernatural entities precisely because they’ve committed some sort of sin, whether that’s consorting with evil spirits, or taking possession of a significant object that doesn’t belong to them. At the end of “The Haunted Doll’s House” there’s even an author’s note acknowledging the similarity to another of his stories, but hoping the reader will see enough of a difference to still enjoy it!

I can see why M R James is known as a master of the ghost story; what I found most intriguing – and extremely clever – was his ability to create an atmosphere of menace out of what would normally be the most benign of surroundings: a hilltop on a sunny day, a painting of a country house, the blackberry bushes at the side of a country lane. I also don’t know if I’ll be able to look through a pair of binoculars again for a while without a shiver down the spine. It was a superb mixture of the traditional and the unexpected, and it held my interest from first to last despite there being around 30 stories in all. Even if you think you’re not a fan of ghost stories, like I did, I’d honestly encourage you to give these a try and see what you think – I’m certainly glad I did. Just don’t read them after dark.

My favourite stories:

  • The Mezzotint
  • The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral
  • A Neighbour’s Landmark
  • An Episode of Cathedral History
  • The Residence at Whitminster

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