The Books of Ember

The Short Version: After some kind of major cataclysm, a remnant of the human race has gone underground to a city called Ember.  But Ember itself is dying and two bright children – Lina and Doon – know it, so they strike out to find something to save their town and their people.  In doing so, they manage to find a path to the surface that leads them back into the world and towards a new home in a town called Sparks.  The newly arrived Emberites nearly double the population of Sparks and tensions naturally flare up… but peace is achieved and Doon & Lina are at the fore of the peace process.  Sometime shortly thereafter, they discover one final gift left by the Builders: a set of solar-power arrays that allow them to rebuild civilization at a somewhat faster rate.  It’s nothing like the civilization the Builders and their children (like Nickie, of Yonwood) had – but they’re making a fresh start and someone out there notices them…

The Review: I remember reading The City of Ember right when it came out, in 2003.  Yeah, it was a little below me even then – but it seemed like an intriguing idea and I wanted to see the execution.  I don’t remember how I felt about it then, although I clearly liked it enough to get the sequel.  Time passed, as it is wont to do, and I heard about a prequel and a further sequel – but never picked them up.  Some more time passed and I happened to find both of them for cheap on Amazon and finally I set my mind to powering through them the next time I had the chance.  As it turns out, that chance was this holiday break.  So I suppose I’ll start at the beginning and work my way through all four books.

The City of Ember is the simplest of the books.  We get our introductions to the characters, we have a premise and a vague background (vague backgrounds are the easiest thing about dystopias and I wish people would try harder.  It doesn’t take much effort to say “ooh, there was a cataclysm and now there’s no one left to remember most of it so now people are so backwards and lost!” – it’s a lot harder to actually fill in those details and create a cogent picture of apocalypse as well as life after it, but it’s also more rewarding for both author and reader).  We even get our general ambience: darkness versus faint light.  And light is flickering out.  It sets up the horror-story aspect of the series and I think a different writer, writing for an older audience, would really have had some fun with the fading Ember as a character in and of itself.  Imagine Jeff Vandermeer, of Ambergrisian fame, set loose in such a place.  But I digress.

So there’s a bad guy and he’s doing all he can to save himself while letting everyone else go to their inevitable deaths and the plucky kids are the ones who save everyone.  It’s a story we all know and DuPrau doesn’t really do anything to make it any different.  I actually felt frustrated at times by how little of the world and background were explored – but it’s a YA novel and I realize that you have to pitch to the low end of the spectrum in order to garner readership.

Interestingly enough, The People of Sparks is a far more mature novel.  It’s still simple and the plot is still totally predictable – but the issues raised are serious ones and they’re handled in a very cogent way, expecting the reader to really step up and have an idea.  It’s the most idea-heavy of the series, I’d argue, and that’s what makes it most worthwhile.  The issue of “the other” is perhaps the most used horror trope these days and remains a steadfast tool in the sci-fi/fantasy arsenal.  We are scared of something that is not us.  Plain and simple.  It’s the story of racism, it’s the story of zombies, it’s the story of alien invasions.  We are scared by something that is different from us, something that comes from elsewhere and essentially invades our lives.  As Doon’s father says, it takes a lot more courage to NOT fight even when you feel threatened than it does to go to war against something different.  This is an important moral, especially in trying times.

Also, the world of the US-as-it-will-be is well-constructed here.  Sure, there’s still a lot of mystery – where, exactly, are we as well as when, etc etc – but it’s mystery that we are okay with because we get certain other reveals: the way civilization has continued outside of Ember.  You can create mystery and keep it hidden so long as you keep the reader satisfied with certain other treats along the way.  The denouement of Sparks is predictable, again, but it sticks the landing re: the message and makes it the strongest entry in the series.

The Prophet of Yonwood was the book I had the highest hopes for and the book that ended up being the most disappointing.  It felt completely and totally unnecessary, in every way.  You find out in the last ten pages that Nickie’s father was one of the Builders and that she’s the old woman who writes the journal that Doon & Lina find on their way out of Ember… the journal that doesn’t really have any information in it because she leaves it behind after like two entries.  And there’s a dropped-in foreshadowing about aliens and space that seems entirely out-of-place and like DuPrau was giving herself further options to continue the series should there be the right demand.  Only thing is, you have to make your readers stay on your side – and Yonwood isn’t a book that accomplishes that task.  It’s preachy – although I happen to be on the author’s side of the church here – and it’s wildly derivative.  The plot, such as it is, seems relatively unfocused and I’m not sure if that’s DuPrau pulling her punches because she’s worried her target audience won’t get it or if she just isn’t a talented-enough writer to really capture the sense of Cuban-missile-crisis paranoia that she’s trying to evoke.  The concept is a great one: we’re on the brink of war with our enemies, there are maybe terrorists in the woods (turns out it’s a polar bear, by the way.  hello, LOST?), and there’s a fundamentalist prophet and her cabal changing the way people in this little North Carolina town live.  So why does the whole book feel bland?  There’s an attempt to be Judy Blume that never quite coalesces, either.  It’s just vague, fuzzy, unfocused – any other adjective you want to use to say that the book never feels like a book.  It is words on a page with hints of cohesion, a modicum of story, the ghost of a message.  It feels wholly unnecessary and, were I a young reader, I probably would’ve pitched a fit and given up on the series.

Happily, I’m older now and plus I’d already bought The Diamond of Darkhold, so I figured I should give it a go.  I was happy to be back in the ‘present’ of the story and to have one more adventure with Doon & Lina, although it seems a bit superfluous.  The titular diamond is a solar array, apparently, although the way it’s described is a little dodgy.  A return to a nearly-totally-blacked-out Ember is suitably exciting and there’s a general sense of DuPrau finally being comfortable in the world she’s created – comfortable enough to give supporting characters a shot at the lead here and there, comfortable enough to not condescend to her reader but instead let things zip along.  Sure, there’s the exposition you expect from a children’s novel… but she actually doesn’t do much to help you out if you haven’t read the other books.  It’s quite assured and I’m almost sad to see the series end.  Except…

No I’m not.  The ending – including the entirely unnecessary while at the same time quite nice to hear future-jump – is, again, predictable, and the action sequences never hold much tension.  The characters, while they’ve developed, never move beyond two-dimensional.  The world is the only thing that has taken on shadings, dimensions – but even that feels unearned.  A drop-in comment in the last two pages about the crazy scientist with the universe in his house in The Prophet of Yonwood having made contact with aliens and the aliens have finally arrived at the planet after 250 years or whatever… it actually angered me.  It was unnecessary.  It leaves an opening for a further book that would take the series in a totally different direction and that’s just not cool.  Especially because I don’t think DuPrau could pull it off.

Ratings: The City of Ember – 3.5 out of 5.  The People of Sparks – 4 out of 5.  The Prophet of Yonwood – 2 out of 5.  The Diamond of Darkhold – 3.5 out of 5.  Overall series rating – 3 out of 5.
It’s a perfectly passable series but not really anything more.  I remember it as having been better when I was younger and I might’ve even liked it more had I read it when I was even younger… but it isn’t anything special.  It doesn’t stand out in any way.  Perhaps Ms. DuPrau presaged the trend of writing Serious Books for Young Readers but in the end, the trend far outstripped her.  If you’ve got a young reader, they’ll enjoy these – but they’ll burn through them and find them rather “meh” at the end.

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