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"The City of Ember," by Jeanne DuPrau

"There is no place but Ember. Ember is the only light in the dark world."

This is a wonderful book, and is the current selection for my son's homeschooling bookclub. We enjoyed it so much that, after we'd finished it the first time yesterday afternoon, my son asked if we could read it a second time. His exact words were, "That was AWESOME! Can we listen again?" (So we are).

This post-apocalyptic young adult fantasy is set in a city which is powered by the subterranean river which runs north of town. The river powers the generator which provides all power and light. The lives of the citizens of Ember are completely dependent upon this all-important generator, as there is no natural source of light in the city (nor anywhere else, as far as the inhabitants of Ember know). The lights are turned on from six in the morning until nine at night, when the lights - all lights, everywhere - are extinguished for the night, leaving the city in a complete and inpenetrable darkness (no portable sources of light have been invented). Ember was once prosperous, with a seemingly endless store of supplies which had been provided by "the Builders" more than 200 years ago. But now, these necessary supplies - canned food, clothes, paper and pencils, and (most important of all) lightbulbs - are becoming scarce. The condition of the generator is worrisome, as well. Unexpected power outages are becoming more common, and of longer duration, and no one is free from the worry that perhaps one day - one day soon - the lights will go out, and not come back on at all.

Lina and Doon are both 12 years old, at the age when they enter the workforce for the first time. Doon is concerned about the state of things, and soon Lina realizes that his reasons for concern are valid. But how can they possibly help? Then a surprise discovery leads to a mystery which they believe holds the key, but can they solve it in time to save the inhabitants of Ember?

SPOILER WARNING: The stuff behind the cut contains (mostly vague) spoilers for the end of the book.

I found myself on the edge of my seat throughout most of this book. There was a subtle urgency as we continued to see more and more signs of the decay that was happening in the city, especially as Lina herself began to realize that she was involved in a race against time. It was an exciting and satisfying read, interesting and fun, and I adored the main characters. They were really well-drawn, with both talents and faults.

I'll also admit that I was completely surprised when I realized just where Ember was located. I felt afterward like I should have guessed right away, but for some reason, the city's real location never once occurred to me. And when Lina, Doon and Poppy reached the surface, and read the journal, it was distinctly unsettling to imagine the various scenarios which might have led to the creation of a city like this. In this, and in other parts of the story, I found what the author didn't spell out to be more effective than if she'd put down every detail. At the end, for example; the stone falling at the feet of Mrs. Murdo was a perfect way to end the story. No reason to resolve all the loose ends: surely, Lina and Doon were exonerated, so not only would the people find their way out of Ember, but the Mayor would receive his comeuppance. Best of all, the author managed to convey all this without a single word. All in all, I found this to be a very effective story - exciting, interesting, touching, and just disturbing enough to inspire some thought about the circumstances. There are some wonderful moral/ethical issues here, too, presented in ways that I think children can understand. The inappropriateness of Doon's anger and the consequences of him not confiding in his father for somewhat frivolous reasons; Lina's realization that what Lizzie and Looper were doing was not just a "victimless crime," but really was unfair and wrong. There is a lot of depth here, but written in a way that is totally appropriate, and accessible to even fairly young children (my son is eight, and I think he understood everything the author was trying to convey).

While reading this book, I couldn't help but think it could be turned into a wonderful film, and it also seemed well-suited to a computer adventure game (something along the lines of "Myst"), with puzzles to be solved, underground places to be searched, and findings to be understood. A great adventure story, on top of everything else. 4.5/5 stars.
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