The premise of Halpern and Kujawinski’s YA dystopian novel Nightfall is amazing, and it’s why I picked it up. The inhabitants of a certain island are preparing to leave it, because on their world, day and night exist in fourteen-year cycles. The fourteen years of Day are drawing to an end, the sun sinks, frost starts to creep over the land, and no one can remain in the town. It’s just not safe.
So the townspeople are planning to leave for the Desert Lands on the equator, where light and darkness last for three-day cycles. But neither our heroine Marin nor her twin brother Kana are happy about this. Marin has grown up on the island and doesn’t look forward to a fourteen-year exile elsewhere, and Kana has an eye condition that means he’s blind in bright light.
On top of that, their parents and the other town elders have some strange customs that must be followed before they leave. For instance, their houses must be thoroughly cleaned, left the way the townspeople found them when they colonized the place. And all doors must be unlocked. No explanation is given for this. Then finally, when the ships have arrived, Marin discovers her friend Line is missing. As an orphan, he doesn’t have anyone looking out for him except Marin, so she and Kana slip away from the chaos at the harbor to find Line.
You can guess what happens next, but it’s so well-written that I was caught up in the story. After their shock at seeing the moon for the first time, the three of them run through darkening woods to the harbor, only to see the ships out on the horizon. And at nightfall, the tide goes out for hundreds of miles, so even if they find a boat, they can’t push it out to the water’s edge.
So they find an abandoned house and light a signal lamp, hoping the ships will see it and return. Instead, some huge creature enters the house, tries to force open a door they’ve barricaded, and finally leaves with a sign scratched into the door – three marks, showing that there are three people living there. Marin, Kana and Line slip out and discover there’s a hermit on the island who didn’t leave either. He’s been killed, and the single mark on his door has another slash crossing it out.
This was all incredibly creepy and atmospheric even before Kana started noticing the changes in himself. His eyes may be useless during the day, but in the darkness of the endless night, he has no difficulty seeing. And although he’s always been thin and frail, he’s now growing stronger, more agile – and dangerous.
Unfortunately this turned out to be the high point of the book. The authors build up a suspenseful premise and world, but the revelation of what takes over the island during Night is a letdown. Apparently the talon-footed monsters of Night want to live in houses. They can interbreed with humans. And they speak English. It was like watching M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village – this book could have been so much better.
As for the characters, Marin is a generic YA heroine – brave, rebellious, loyal – and all I recall about Line is that he takes care of his little brother after their parents’ death. Though this doesn’t stop him from leaving his brother alone on the harbor, because he wants to enter the woods (which are in complete shadow now that the sun has fallen) to find a lost necklace of Marin’s before the ships leave. Obviously the story can’t take place unless he does this, but come on.
And the more I thought about the plot, as opposed to being caught up in the world-building and the concept, the less it held together. For instance, there’s a lot of tension about the arrival of the ships to take people away before darkness falls. The ships are crewed by furriers who collect pelts in the northern part of the world, then sell them in the south, but if they collect more pelts than they expect, there might not be enough room for all the townspeople. The empty harbor when Marin, Line and Kana finally arrive is a nightmare of trampled ground, smashed possessions, and even discarded food, all suggesting a fight to get on the ships.
But why don’t the townspeople build their own ships? They have fourteen years of safety in the daylight, after all. And do none of the adults want to remain in their homes? Yes, it’ll be cold and dark for fourteen years, but again, there’s time to prepare for this. Instead, everyone marches in lockstep even if it means abandoning everything, including their missing children.
Nightfall started with a bang, but ended with a fizzle. If you read it, keep your expectations relatively low and enjoy the good parts (I still love the premise!). But the less successful parts mean I can’t fully recommend it.