Book review: Nightfall, by Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski

Disclosure: This review is based upon a review copy provided by the publisher. No other consideration was offered.

Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski’s Nightfall is a super-creepy book with a really fascinating premise, and if you like high-concept, atmospheric young adult horror, you really need to get on this if you haven’t already. It’s another great team effort from these authors, and it’s further cemented my soft spot for authors who can write collaborative projects so seamlessly, because it’s not something that comes easy, even with careful editing to smooth the stitches of Frankenstein’s monster. Believe me, there’s a lot that’s monstrous about Nightfall. 

On Marin’s island, the cycles of night and day are, shall we say, much longer than those on Earth. For 14 years, daylight bathes the island, making it a productive place filled with crops and farm animals. For the next 14 years, though, the island is plunged into darkness, and the residents relocate to a region nearer the equator to take advantage of a better climate, cycling back and forth between their far-flung home and the desert. In this sense, it reminds me of some of the greatest science fiction set on planets that move far beyond the orbits of their home stars, with rotations and axial tilt very different from that of Earth.

By tradition, as the light of dusk gathers, the people of the island follow a rigid set of rules as they pack up their homes, clean them, and set out a series of objects and ornaments, almost as though they are preparing for guests who might arrive after they leave. Once everything is put away, they set sail with fur traders who make a stop on the island as part of their route, returning when the sun rises again. Some residents, like Marin’s father, come home with wives from the desert, and some women — like Marin — will be sequestered during part of their time there to learn the traditions of their ancestors.

But that’s not quite how it works out for her. Marin and her twin brother Kana are preparing to go when they realise that their friend Line has gone missing — and they have a pretty good idea of where he is. Racing against time, they plunge into the woods to find him, hoping that the ships won’t leave the docks before they do, but when they emerge, it’s to see the fleet of ships set sail, disappearing over the horizon. The teens are left alone in a dark, hostile environment to survive for the next 14 years unless they can find a way off the island and back to their families.

And they’re not alone.

The older, darker, original residents of the island are furious with the humans who invade it during the daylight hours, and they make it their home at night. As Marin, Kana, and Line try to figure out how to get off the island, they’re also dodging mysterious creatures who seem faster, more agile, and more prepared for the dark than they will ever be. Meanwhile, Kana is fighting his own demons under cover of darkness, struggling with an emerging aspect of his identity that he’s only beginning to understand.

I really love the concept behind Nightfall, reminding me in many ways of ‘All Summer in a Day’ by situating the story on a planet where seasons and weather move differently, but are still rooted in human experience. This isn’t a colony on Venus, but it is a community that would be familiar and accessible to many readers, and something we’re familiar with on Earth though to a lesser degree — the land of the midnight sun with its endless, unrepentant days turns to relentless darkness in winter, creating brutal conditions that have a very stark and fundamental effect on the lives of those who make these regions their home. The migration of Marin’s people and their measures to survive in a hostile environment remind me of cultures on Earth that have made similar adaptations.

Though the concept is well-rooted in science, this is not science fiction — speculative fiction, perhaps, but it’s more firmly rooted in the horror and thriller genres. It was definitely a creepy read at night, creating a sense that the sun would never actually appear over the horizon, and it made for an eerie one during the day, too. We humans fear the dark and what we think might be hiding it. For centuries, we’ve been telling stories about monsters to terrify ourselves, because this is what humans like to do. Texts like this have a long-established role in human history and culture, and this one is incredibly well crafted and engaging.

Each of the characters is dealing with complexities that each doesn’t reveal to the others, creating a web of secrets and lies that tangles around them tighter and tighter until the strings start choking them. What comes into question with Nightfall is when those webs will break up and how the characters will resolve them — if they can resolve them before the clock runs out on them and they’re left with their backs against the cliffs and nowhere to go, all chances of escaping lost with the long-gone tides.