Unless you happen to be a chessmaster in the neverending chess game of life, you are nothing but a pawn to be sacrificed when the strategy demands it.
"The game is eternal; only the time the figures spend on the checkered board is finite."
It really doesn't matter which side in the war you belong to because each will sacrifice its expendable pawns in the pursuit of victory. And no pawn is ever safe - because, regardless of your rank among the minions, you are still nothing more than a piece to be moved and manipulated.
"And really, all our aspirations and speeches are meaningless. We are marionettes. Nothing more than marionettes. Trying to become a puppet-master is a hopeless feat since you need special abilities like Geser's or Zavulon's, and those abilities are exceedingly rare. And all the seats at the chessboards are already taken. No chessmaster will allow his place to be taken by a chess-piece, even if it's a chess king or a queen."
--- From the semi-drunk, in the Russian fashion, conversation between the enemies Edgar (the Dark One) and Anton (the Light One). Both are, of course, pawns on the chessboard of life. ---
Ultimately for the pawns, the 'little people' with little power involved in the 'big kids' games led by those select few who hold the reins of power, the side that they take in the war really does not make that much of a difference. The goals and strategies are set by the leaders, and the rest are just trying to live their lives, to survive, to do well in life; they work and love and have friends. This is what Lukyanenko focuses on in The Day Watch, the sequel to Night Watch, now showing us more of the happenings on the other side of the virtual barricades in the neverending war between the non-ironically named the Light Ones and the Dark Ones.
"But for the Others people are a source of existence. Their roots and food. For the Light Ones and the Dark Ones alike, regardless of what the Light Ones blab about on every corner. They also take their energy from people's lives. As for the goals... We have the same goals. Both us and the Light Ones are trying to beat our rivals and be the first to reach the goal."
Night Watch had its fair share of moral greyness and ambiguity, showing that the distinctions between the Light and the Dark are not as obvious as their names suggest; underscoring how even the 'good guys', especially those with power, will not hesitate to manipulate and use their followers to get what they want. Day Watch shows us that the same is true for the other side, and that, honestly, the 'pawns' may have more in common than they think. Except they are not always open to seeing that, to reconsidering their ingrained, deeply prejudiced views of traditional enemies. But sometimes they cannot help but see how pointless the distinctions between them can be, and the failure to do so can lead to tragedy.
"And Anton thought yet another time that the Dark Ones in their seeming simplicity are sometimes more humane than the fighters for the grand ideals - the Light Ones."
The leaders of both sides in this eternal standstill of the Dark (Zavulon) and the Light (Geser) would very much love to upset the tenuous balance and bring the long-awaited victory to their side. Little will stop them, and the methods they choose are eerily similar despite the presumed differences in etiology - the age-tested political strategies rooted in intrigues and manipulations and deceit and the willingness to move the pawns on the board whichever way they please and easily sacrificing them once need comes for that.
That is not a new approach all in itself. What was different about this book is that the said pawns have no misconceptions about their leaders' lack of hesitance about reaching their goals regardless of the costs. And yet, contrary to what you'd expect, they do not rebel much. They know about the lack of honesty in their respective Watches - and yet continue following the same leaders, continue following the ideologies they were raised with, continue sticking with their side and their rulers. It's to me a very Soviet way of looking at things, stemming from the time where there was no doubt that the intentions of those in power may have nothing to do with your well-being and that you may be easily sacrificed in order to achieve "the greater good". And you don't need to know about these plans in order to unwittingly help carrying them out.
"Keys are never told which door they are supposed to unlock."
There's not really a "lone wolf" mentality, no true attempts to overthrow the status quo by rebelling - well, in all honesty there are a few tries at going against the big guys - but it seems that the end result invariably ends up being what those in power envisioned and planned for. And so little people get screwed and life goes on. If you decide to do something about this, you just may realize that your rebellion or actions is exactly what was planned for you, the expendable pawn. Good pawn, you did your job well, as planned, goodbye now. And the lone ranger fails to change the course of events yet again - so unlike the approach usually accepted by the more individualistic Western society.
"You're the Dark One," said Anton. "You can only see evil, treason and vileness in everything."
"I just don't close my eyes to them," Edgar retorted. "And that's why I don't trust Zavulon. Almost as much as I don't trust Geser. I even trust you more than them - after all, you're also a pathetic pawn, accidentally painted a different color than me. Does the black pawn hate the white one? No. Especially when the pawns are peacefully drinking beer together."
Lukyanenko has this annoying habit of creating almost a playlist for his books, using the lyrics from well-known Russian songs to illustrate the ideas and the feelings of his characters, and sometimes trying to use the message in the song as a soundtrack for the story, highlighting the points he's trying to make, and sometimes almost using them to introduce certain plot points (The Mirror of the World? C'mon!). If it were a movie, the songs he uses would be playing in the background as the characters ponderously stare past the camera.
This approach got quite a bit of eye-rolling from me - except one instance where he uses a song "Tin Soldiers" by the famous Soviet singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky - a song seemingly about his six-year-old son playing war with his toy soldiers, with equal numbers 'dying' on each side - and with the question of how exactly does he make a choice which ones live and which ones die. A few of Vysotsky's short verses so aptly underscore the point that Lukyanenko makes over pages and pages of this book - the arbitrariness of what side in the war you end up on, the cruelty of chance, and the pointless demise of the pawns in somebody else's war.
The English translation of the song is under the spoiler tag - unlike Lukyanenko, I will not be forcing it on you, but it's quite good:
You can find it on YouTube: Vladimir Vysotsky - 'Tin Soldiers'
Still, there will be poems and math,
Honors, debts, an uneven fight -
But for now, tin soldiers here,
On the old map, stand in order.
It would be better if he kept them in barracks,
But war is war -
The soldiers fall in both armies
Equally on each side.
[...] Those devilish pangs of conscience -
How can you evade sinning to yourself?
Tin soldiers, both here and there, -
How do you decide who should win?
[...] Where are you, light-minded geniuses,
Or have you no time to come?
Where are you, who lost their battles,
Like it was nothing, without suffering?
Or you, carrying the dawn in your crown of battles,
Wins, triumphs and graves, -
Where are you, who became like Caesar
That came, saw, conquered?
The little general is worried,
Burdened by the unbearable load
He, who became the top guy,
My six-year old Napoleon.
To put an end to his troubles,
Exactly half of those soldiers -
I painted blue-the stroke of a genius -
In the morning the blue ones lay.
I am proud of such success,
But a thought disturbs me now and then:
How did he decide that the blue should die,
And not vice versa?
This was overall a good book, and I liked the ambiguity and the greyness and the moral conflicts. Stars are docked for frequent over-moralizing and a subpar use of Norse-Christian mythology that seemed to be semi-awkwardly tacked on at the end. But overall it's a solid 3.5 star read, and I will be gladly picking up the next one in the series, hoping to see more of this world that I find is quite growing on me.