Nightfall By Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski; Putnam, 368 pages, $17.99 (for grades 7 and up).
September, with its cooling temperatures and deepening darkness hinting at winter to come, is the perfect time for publication of “Nightfall,” a superb mix of psychological thriller, horror and survival tale for the YA audience from former Buffalonian Jake Halpern and his friend and co-author Peter Kujawinski.
It’s set on an island where 14 years of sun are followed by 14 years of darkness, and the novel opens just as night is about to fall. It’s a brilliant concept for a horror novel – tapping into that primal human fear that the sun will disappear forever, and the world be left behind in complete and utter darkness.
The islanders of Bliss are making frantic preparations as they await the furriers’ boats that will take them south to the desert until it’s safe to return home again. (They are under a strict deadline; once night falls, the tide rolls out hundreds of miles, meaning anyone left behind will be trapped on the island.)
The three teens at the heart of the story – Marin, her brother Kana and friend Line (an orphan who lives with his little brother Francis) – are all 14, so life in daylight is all they have known, but all three are accomplished at cliff climbing and the skills of basic survival.
Marin has inherited the exotic beauty of her mother, a native of the Desert lands; Marin’s brother Kana has been blind in the blazing sunlight but strangely finds himself with improved vision – and greater strength – as night approaches. Meanwhile, Line’s romantic interest in Marin has complicated his relationship with Kana, his best friend.
The teens are puzzled by the strict rituals of departure the adults so slavishly follow without explanation – the vigorous cleaning using salt and lime, as “the house must be without stain.” Individual letters to “the master of the house” contain exact instructions about how to leave each house (removing locks, door handles and carpets, and placing ominous stored items including giant cast-iron plates, grotesque animal heads and extremely sharp knives, just so). All we know of the place’s history is that settlers discovered the uninhabited island with its perfect “storybook town” of uninhabited, intact dwellings 150 years before. But the rituals suggest the islanders share their dwellings with someone, or something else, once night arrives.
When one of the teens turns up missing just as the boats are about to arrive, the other two set off on a search, only to find themselves marooned in the rapidly worsening dark and cold.
Marvelous details paint a vivid picture of life in such a place, divided by the angle of the sun into intervals referred to as “Late Morning,” “Noon” “Twilight” “Dusk” and “Sunset.” The valuable “Noon wine” is saved to pay the furriers for passage on the boats. A tough loaf is dubbed “sheet iron” or “tooth dullers,” made from fall wheat, “a slender, reedy grain that grew reluctantly in the dim light of the last year.”
Much of the action of the novel takes place in the dark, in freezing rain, lashing winds, hail and ice, with the only light provided by a candle, the moon or the luminescence of an ink tattoo, as the authors masterfully build the suspense, the teens fleeing for their lives in the darkness, unseen predators in pursuit drawn by “the scent of day.”
The topography of the island (as in all great fantasies of this kind, a map is provided) is beautifully described with its high cliffs, the Coil River, a secret cave, a cemetery, and Bliss becomes a different place as the tide recedes, revealing a stone statue “The Hag,” small islands are revealed as the tops of stone towers.
The dramatic finale ends on a note that suggests a possible sequel.
Jean Westmoore is The News’ longtime children’s book reviewer