The Builders created the city of Ember as a last bastion for humankind. It is run entirely by electricity produced by a huge generator, but the city was only intended to operate for 200 years. Along the way, the instructions for leaving the city were lost, and now the generator is wearing out and supplies are running low. No one really knows what to do, but young Doon Harrow knows that he must do something. When Assignment Day comes for Doon, Lina Mayfleet and all their former school classmates who are now graduating into the workforce, Doon and Lina both draw jobs that are the opposite of what they wanted. Doon asks Lina to trade jobs, and she happily does so, giving Doon the opportunity to work far underground in the Pipeworks where the generator is located. Doon is proficient with mechanical things and thinks that if he can just get a look at the generator, he might be able to fix it and stop the terrifying blackouts that one day are sure to become permanent. In the meantime, Lina, in her new job as a messenger, is beginning to learn the frightening truth of the supply situation in Ember. When Lina's elderly Granny starts rambling about something she's forgotten and frantically rummaging through the closet, Lina discovers an old box with a note inside, but before she can get to it, her baby sister, Poppy, tries to eat the paper. Lina is left with the scrambled bits of a message that she feels could be very important to the survival of Ember's citizens, but without knowing what it says, she cannot be certain. Lina turns to her old friend, Doon, for help, and the two begin to piece together the puzzle which may bring the answers everyone has been seeking. But when the pair discover incriminating things about the mayor of Ember that he doesn't want anyone to know, they find themselves in a race against time to solve the riddle and save the entire city before disaster strikes.
I found The City of Ember to be a very entertaining read that is somewhat difficult to categorize. It is essentially part science fiction, part fantasy with healthy doses of adventure, suspense, and mystery thrown in for good measure. It has a rather post-apocalyptic feel to it with a little government conspiracy on the side, although since this is a children's book, it wasn't nearly as dark as most stories of that type. My sense of this theme was confirmed when I read on the author's website that part of her inspiration for the novel was her experiences growing up in the 1950's when many people were concerned about a possible nuclear war and were building bomb shelters just in case. Having grown up in an older house that had a bomb shelter, I could definitely relate. I also thought I detected a bit of an environmental message in the story, mainly fueled by Lina and Doon's fascination with the things of nature, which was also something that Jeanne DuPrau said she hoped would be conveyed in her narrative. Trying to figure out the mystery of what and where Ember is and why it was created was a lot of fun. Some of these details were disclosed by the end of the book and others were not, but Ms. DuPrau stated that the remaining mysteries would be revealed in the next book of the series, The People of Sparks. I also think there was a morality tale embedded in The City of Ember that explored the idea that there is both light and dark inside each one of us, and which we choose to follow can affect not only ourselves but those around us too. There is a bit of a spiritual aspect to the story as well in the form of The Believers who are essentially the religious pulse of Ember. I would have liked to learn a little more about them, and perhaps they will play a bigger role in future books in the series. Ultimately though, I thought that The City of Ember was a tale about hope, courage, determination and selflessness in the face of a crisis.
I really liked the two protagonists, Lina and Doon. They are only twelve years old when the book begins, but not unlike their counterparts in similar stories, they take on semi-adult roles. Lina is a very energetic, determined and strong girl who is a survivor and very responsible for her age, having taken on a lot of the care-giving duties for her baby sister after the deaths of the adults in her life. I think I was particularly taken by Doon, a very curious boy who is fascinated by all thing, both natural and mechanical. He loves to study the few living creatures he can find in Ember, mostly insects, and is equally eager and adept at taking things apart to figure out how they work and putting them back together again. Doon has a bit of a temper problem, but underneath it all he has a good and kind heart. I loved the advice his father gave him, "The trouble with anger is, it gets hold of you. And then you aren't the master of yourself anymore. Anger is..... And when anger is the boss, you get....unintended consequences." I thought it was a great adage for kids and adults alike who might struggle with anger issues. I also think that Doon has an underlying desire to "be somebody" or "do something important," because he always seems to be waiting for that "big moment" to reveal the things he learns about Ember and admits later that it was probably the wrong thing to do. Maybe he even has a little bit of a hero complex. Overall though, Doon and Lina both were very likable characters. I was impressed with how the author shows them sometimes being tempted to do something that would be unethical, but in the end, they make the right decisions for the good of everyone in Ember and not just themselves.
This book is highly character driven, and Jeanne DuPrau has a talent for vividly describing the sights, sounds and environment of Ember as well as the way certain things make Doon and Lina feel. In fact, I found it interesting (and difficult) to imagine what absolute darkness feels like, since Ember has no light whatsoever during the blackouts and nighttime hours. While the plot of The City of Ember moves steadily forward, the lush portraits the author paints sometimes give it a rather languid pace. It also starts out a little slow, taking a while to build the action and suspense. I personally like the rich descriptions and am well aware of the challenges in establishing the characters and setting for a fantasy world, so these things didn't really bother me. However, I could see how kids with shorter attention spans might get bored at times. If given a chance though, the story can definitely grab both the adult and child imagination. My daughter was not entirely pleased when I announced The City of Ember as my choice for our next book to read together, but about halfway in she was enjoying it, and by the end, she was begging for the sequel. I too am very eager to read the next book of the series, since The City of Ember did have what I would characterize as a cliffhanger ending. It is followed by The People of Sparks, The Prophet of Yonwood, and The Diamond of Darkhold. For a children's book that is aimed at tweens in the 9-12 year age range, The City of Ember certainly caught my adult attention and in doing so, has earned a spot on my keeper shelf.
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