Book Review: “The City of Ember” by Jeanne DuPrau

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The City of Ember
by Jeanne DuPrau

For over 200 years, the citizens of Ember have been taught that they were a lone light in a dark world. Surrounded by Unknown Regions, fed by underground storehouses and a handful of greenhouses, their lives are regulated by the electric lights that turn on every morning and off every night. Their sky is featureless, their nights pitch black. They have forgotten the purpose for which the city was built, forgotten what the world was like before; and of greatest concern, they have lost the instructions for leaving Ember when the time comes.

But it is each day clearer that they must leave their city sometime. The generator is failing. Blackouts grow longer and more frequent. Supplies are running out. No one remembers how to fix the things that no longer work. Social tensions are rising. Their way of life must soon come to an end, one way or another. But no one knows how to get out of Ember – or even if there is anything outside Ember!

Doon and Lina are classmates in the highest grade at Ember’s school. As their education ends, each student is given a work assignment. Doon draws the job Lina wants: to be a messenger, to run all over the city carrying messages to all kinds of people. Lina draws the job Doon wants: to be a pipeworker, down in the tunnels beneath the city, where he might be able to do something about their growing power crisis. Impulsively, the two children trade work assignments – and thereby hangs the fate of their entire city.

This is the first novel by a California-based author who, to judge by her photo inside the back cover and her claim to keep “a big garden and a small dog,” clearly spends a lot more time in the sun than the characters in this book. It is a magnificent achievement for a first-time novelist – a wonderful book on any terms. Filled with puzzles, surprises, danger, and tension, it also packs in a lot of hopefulness, compassion for its characters, and a wistful (if not ominous) hint about a possible future for our world. Perfectly paced, its ending left me eager to plunge into the sequel: The People of Sparks.