This amazing MG novel is the first story in the Books of Ember series. Ember is an underground city powered by a large generator that provides the town with light and energy for 15 hours a day. During the remaining nine hours, the city is completely dark. The citizens of Ember have lived here for generations. They know no other way of life. In fact, they believe that they are inhabitants of the only city in the world, or at least most of them believe this.
Lina is twelve years old. Like all twelve year olds in the city of Ember, she has recently been assigned to a work duty. She ends up with the job she had hoped for, messenger. A messenger is responsible for taking communications back and forth across the city. There are no phones or computers. There are no cars. And unfortunately, the food, medicine and essential supplies are dwindling fast.
Doon, a former classmate of Lina, has recently been assigned to work in the pipeworks, the tunnels below Ember that carry electricity and water to the city. Doon wanted this assignment because he suspects the city's generator is growing old and will soon give out. The city has been plagued with a number or recent blackouts.
Eventually, Lina and Doon team up. Lina discovers a note, partially destroyed, that hints at a way out of Ember. Lina and Doon believe that a way out is the only chance of survival for the citizens of their city. Unfortunately, Ember's leaders are corrupt, and instead of helping the two kids, they attempt to capture them and discredit their ideas. Lina and Doon eventually decipher the note and find the way out of Ember. Without any idea of what lies beyond the city, the two friends decide they must leave or face certain capture.
Along with Lina's little sister, Poppy, Lina and Doon follow the instructions in the note and are able to leave Ember. What they discover shocks them. They have been living underground. There is a whole other world above Ember that no one knows about. At least not the people of Ember. They find a small journal along the way, written by one of Ember's first inhabitants, it leads them to believe that there is much more to the story of their underground city and what initially prompted the builders to build it. However, they are more convinced than ever that they must warn their family and friends to leave Ember immediately.
I love the book. I think it is a smart, beginning level dystopian novel and is a great introduction for middle grades readers into the dystopian genre. I see it as a great series for future lovers of The Hunger Games trilogy.
I did find a few problems with the story. We learn, from the journal written by the first inhabitants, that Ember was originally populated by 100 older adults, 50 men and 50 women. These 100 adults were paired up and given the responsibility of raising two infants, one boy and one girl. The people of the city have had no connection with the outside world for generations. Wouldn't that lead to most of Ember's citizens being related to one another? I don't bring this up because of the "how to find a mate that isn't your cousin" issue, but because extended family, cousins, aunts, uncles, aren't part of the plot at all. Lina and Poppy's parents are dead and their grandmother's death is part of the plot of the book, but the girls must move in with a helpful neighbor. Why? They have no relatives in a city that should be full of them?
I am also a bit perplexed by the issue of currency and jobs. Money is mentioned in the story and Lina is paid a wage for her job as messenger, but how goods and money are exchanged isn't clear. There is a supply depot and various Mom & Pop store selling different wares, but it is never explained how the stores get supplies. And are the citizens allocated rations or do they make requests at the supply depot? Do you have to pay for supplies from the depot? It is very clear that supplies are running low and that some goods are no longer available, but I never completely felt the fear and panic of the citizens. Maybe that was DuPrau's intent. Maybe she didn't want the mood to be fear and panic. Perhaps compliance and blind acceptance of their conditions better fit the mood of Ember.
Readers, what do you think?