Nightsiders by Sue Isle – review

Nightsiders by Sue Isle is one of the Twelve Planets series published by Twelfth Planet Press (made up of 12 boutique collections of stories by Australian writers). It is made up of four shorter stories, including:

  • The Painted Girl
  • Nation of the Night
  • Paper Dragons
  • The Schoolteacher’s Tale

I’ve not read any of Ms Isle’s work before and quite enjoyed this short volume (138 pages in total). All four stories are related and set in a future where the western seaboard of Australia has been abandoned including the world’s most isolated capital city, Perth. Climate change and some kind of terrorism have reduced Western Australia to a wasteland, where only a small number of people who didn’t participate in the evacuation remain. Post apocalyptic is probably not the right phrase to describe the world – it seems as though things ended with a whimper not an apocalyptic bang. Still, for all intents and purposes the stories are set in a Mad Max style world.

The stories represented an interesting exploration of what amounts to a small civilisation adapting itself to a radically new environment and what that means for their way of life. Old knowledge and teaching is slowly being lost. Children are adjusting to the new world they find themselves in. I liked the setting and the themes of the stories were strong.

The Painted Girl describes life in this new world through the eyes of a young girl (Kyra) as she enters Perth after living an itinerant life moving between inland camps. The story was an excellent way to introduce the “rules” of life in Perth. This introductory element was woven in well with a strong story in its own right, with Kyra learning some unpleasant truths about her own life and existence, and an interesting exploration of tribalism and how easily people can switch to a harsh set of rules when survival is at stake.

Nation of the Night moves us onto a different character, Ash. We take for granted some of the medical marvels of the 21st century, so reading about Ash’s attempts to have gender reassignment surgery when such things are out of reach was compelling. It was a good way of exploring the wider world outside of Perth, with Ash travelling to Melbourne for the operation. It seems as if the eastern seaboard is in as much trouble as the west, albeit trouble of a different nature. Overcrowding, strained services – even New Zealanders aren’t allowed to use the welfare system! I thought this story oriented the reader in the world a lot better, and provided good broader context for the Perth settings. Ash’s feelings about his own gender are well described and it makes for a powerful story.

Paper Dragons gives more insight into the Nightsider world, from the perspective of young people who have grown up not really knowing anything else. I’m not sure I can get behind the concept of a TV soap opera script having the power to stir the apathetic masses to action, but I thought the description of how children adapt to their environment to be very well realised. There starts to be some continuity of characters in this story, with Ash in particular making an appearance.

The last story, The Schoolteacher’s Tale, is from the point of view of an old schoolteacher (Ellen) who remembers the time before the evacuation and is watching the world slipping away from her. There are some strong messages around reconciliation with the various indigenous tribes that inhabit the land around Perth, as well as Ellen coming to terms with the fact that the education she is trying to give to children is not relevant in the harsh new world that they live in. In Ellen there is a connection to our present, and it helps bring the world into much sharper relief. I thought that Ms Isle did an excellent job slowly clarifying the world over the course of the four stories, from the view of an uncomprehending child at the start to Ellen’s modern perspective at the end.

As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, I like speculative fiction stories set solidly in an Australian context and combined with some well fleshed out characters. This book ticks all those boxes and I certainly recommend it!

I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.

Author: mark

A writer of speculative fiction and all round good egg. Well, mostly good. OK, sometimes good.

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