Author: Jeanne DuPrau
Published: Random House, 2003
Genre: Children's Science fiction
This is the first book in the Ember series, a popular children's series set in a post-apocalyptic Earth. You may be familiar with the movie made off of the book, City of Ember. I, however, am not familiar with the movie, so this writeup will focus exclusively on the book.
It is always tricky reviewing children's books, as most of my readers will not actually be of the target demographic (it is recommended for ages 9-12, although I suspect that older children will also enjoy it; I did). Many reviewers take the easy way out, spouting inane comparisons such as "A Series of Unfortunate Events meets Harry Potter!" Unfortunately, Ember is nothing like either of those series. It reminds me a bit of H. M. Hoover or perhaps Alexei Panshin's Rite of Passage (horrible book, by the way), although it is written for younger audiences. I have an urge to compare it to The Host, although that is probably even further from the mark. Better you should clear your mind of comparisons, and start anew...
Ember is a city that exists well apart from the world we know, surrounded by all-encompassing darkness. The only light comes from the electric generator that runs the city, located deep underground and powered by a turbulent river. While the Builders obviously had great technology, the current residents do not. They produce next to nothing, living off the dwindling supply of canned food and dry goods in the giant storerooms. Ember has a population of approximately 500 people, and the small community is tightly regulated, having a school that teaches from the same books that have been used for over a century, job postings mandated by the mayor, and a rather un-democratic system of government. Things have gone on this way for as long as anyone can remember, but now the power is starting to fail, supplies are running low, and the mayor is tightening control over the city.
For most of the book we don't really know where or what Ember is, who the builders were, or why they built the city. No-one knows, anymore. We only know that things are getting worse, and something needs to be done. But no-one knows what can be done.
The story follows Lina and Doon, two teenagers graduating from school and starting their new jobs. Lina is assigned to the pipeworks, the underground system of tunnels containing the sewers and electrical system for the city -- a miserable job if ever there was one. She had had her heart set on being a messenger, one of the runners who travel on foot throughout the city, a kind of verbal post office. Fortunately for her, the person who drew the job of messenger happens to be a rather odd boy who dreams of learning the secrets of electricity, and decides that the pipeworks are his best bet for studying the giant and mysterious generator that lives beneath the city. They trade jobs, and as luck would have it, this places them in the ideal positions to learn the city's deepest secrets....
This is a very good book, but the writing style is definitely aimed at children -- even more so than Harry Potter. The ideas are not childish, though; the book is often dark, and doesn't shy away from the dark side of society or life. The world of Ember is always interesting and engaging, with new discoveries on nearly every page. There are some flaws in the writing style; if you pay attention you will see that some of the language used in the book doesn't fit in well with the backstory, and sometimes coincidence plays too large a part in the plot. As the story goes on you have to wonder how well thought out some of the backstory actually is, although it is unlikely that the younger readers will notice these problems. I have already started on the second book in the series, and expect to read them all.
The other books in the series thus far are:
The People of Sparks (2004)
The Prophet of Yonwood (2006)
The Diamond of Darkhold (2008)