Novel * Jeanne DuPrau * The Post-Apocalypse… For Kids! * 2003
Before we get into it, be forewarned, this is not a young adult novel. The City of Ember, and its sequels, are kid books. The protagonists are twelve, and that’s about the age these books are directed toward. In Harry Potter terms, this is more like the first two books than the last two. If you’re an edgy teen, these aren’t for you. If you’re twelve, you’re not reading this blog because it’s boring, even with the swears. If you’re an adult who likes a well told story, though, you might vibe with The City of Ember. Maybe. I’m of two minds about the book, as I’ll expound upon, but that’s mostly to do with some of the writing and not the story or the world. For the most part, though, reading this book was a breezy and entertaining experience. The novel fleshes out an intriguing premise, and while the characters are a little thin, the book reads quickly so you’re never really mired down too much.
It’s made immediately clear that The City of Ember takes place in the distant future, over two hundred years past some future calamity. The citizens of the titular city of Ember believe themselves to be the only community of humanity, and they’ve lived for generations in the same city. In video game terms, the city of Ember is like a larger version of Fallout’s Vaults. This community has been sequestered somewhere (obviously underground) and isolated from whatever disaster befell the surface. The story begins long past when anyone knew anything about that disaster. In fact, it seems that nobody in Ember is even aware that there was ever any kind of existence outside of the city. They have no concept of life on the surface, are not even aware that they are underground. No one has ever left, there’s not even any solid idea that there’s anywhere else to go. All they’ve ever known is the City, which exists in perpetual darkness. The only thing keeping them going are seemingly endless stores of necessities and a generator that keeps the dark at bay.
I don’t know about you, but after coming to terms with that premise, I had just about every single question. It’s a cool idea, and I just went with it, but I’m of the opinion that humanity is simply too curious to accept such a limited existence. Of course, that’s what The City of Ember is actually about, because as the book begins, the city is ending. The lights keep going off. They’re running out of supplies. Things are going poorly and are getting worse. Luckily, there are two plucky kids in town who are determined to save the dang day! These kids are Lina, the girl, and Doon, the boy. Doon is a bad name. Anyway, Lina is lighthearted and carefree, although she does have a responsible streak due to her orphan status and her toddler sister. Doon is a bummer most of the time, and serious-minded and boring. The characters are fine, but DuPrau has a bad habit of overtly moralizing. She just hits you over the head with their primary characteristics and flaws so that even a kid would be like, “yo, I get it, Doon has a temper.” It doesn’t derail the novel entirely, but it’s definitely noticeable. Now, the ending to this thing is pretty easily guessed, but just in case spoilers beyond the break.
I’m not sure what the psychological effect is called, but there’s something innately fun in reading about other people’s ignorance. I suppose that’s why fish-out-of-water stories are popular. Obviously, the people who populate the city of Ember have some significant blind spots about the world. One of the things that Lina enjoys, as an energetic and imaginative twelve-year-old, is to draw fantastic pictures. Mostly, she draws pictures of a fantastical city that she’s kind of obsessed with. At one point, on a whimsical flight of fancy, she draws one of these with a blue sky. And then she laughs at herself, because whoever heard of such a crazy thing? But of course the reader is there like, “joke’s on you, you dumb idiot.” It’s kind of a meta-dramatic irony thing, I suppose, but that’s the novel’s primary trade. And it’s fun! I don’t intend to be derogatory here, and watching these ding-dongs figure out how a candle works is honestly a big part as to why the book works more than it doesn’t.
The city and the situation are well-crafted and are the reason to read The City of Ember. I may have mentioned this. Still, the idea that this self-contained city is falling apart because it’s older than it should be is fascinating. Of course the reader should have a bunch of higher-level questions, most of which go unanswered. It’s fine, there’s three other books. Still, there are plenty of intense situations that arise when the kids start digging around and uncovering just how donked up the city is. I just wish the characters weren’t so flat and obvious. Honestly, for most of the book I was worried that this whole thing was going to be a Christian metaphor (it isn’t), and that’s down to how the author characterizes. There is zero subtlety. Doon, for instance, is very smart and brave. But he has a temper, and instead of just writing a scene where he loses it and goes off on people, we get a couple of pages of obvious internalizing which might as well end with a sentence like “and Doon has committed the sin of WRATH.” Doon is also way into the idea of public praise. His primary motivator seems to be getting high-fives from the riff-raff. “And Doon has committed the sin of PRIDE.” It’s all a bit much.
I get that it’s a book for kids, and that many classics of children’s literature do this. My issue is that it’s so blatant that it’s borderline insulting, even to a ten-year-old kid. The saving grace, however, is that Lina is mostly fine and we spend most of our time with her. She has her glaring, obvious flaws that end up causing trouble, but she’s a bit less transparent than Doon or the other characters, all of whom are relatively flat as well. Whatever, though, the main draw here is the world, and that’s still cool as heck. Lina and Doon eventually decipher the message left from The Builders and have found a way out. That’s good news, because entropy is finally winning out and the self-contained city of Ember is literally dying. The kids battle the unsavory leadership of Ember (who have committed the sin of GREED) and find the escape route. The novel ends with the kids escaping via boat, and finding themselves in an incomprehensibly vast new world where, get this, the sky is blue. Shortly thereafter they realize their entire life was lived in a big cave (duh) and that most of their assumptions about life were incredibly short-sighted. Yeah. Anyway, the ending sets up some sequels, and hopefully the world-building is as on-point as what we get here. Also, maybe (crosses fingers) these characters get a little more depth. I guess we’ll see because this was at least good enough to get me to read the next one in the series.