The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

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The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: An underground city on the verge of dying out is the beginning of an adventure for a young boy and girl. The scenery as such is better defined than the story, but the quality is there throughout.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: October 2008
Publisher: Corgi Children's Books
ISBN: 978-0552559980

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Meet Lina, a young girl freshly appointed as a messenger to run the streets of Ember with her oral deliveries. Meet also Doon, her friend, keen to work in the sewers and other underground territories but stymied by tasks that no-one, let alone he, is actually qualified to finish. The pair is our introduction to the titular city. All they or anyone else knows about seems to come from one of roughly three textbooks in the city school – and their surroundings. Ember is an oasis in some future, apocalyptic darkness, a self-sustained factory designed to keep its inhabitants surviving until something else comes along. Therefore no-one seems to realise that the oasis was only designed to be temporary, and the factory is seriously failing. No-one is clear on the fact that, due to one of Lina's ancestors, the instructions for what to do have been lost.

I really wish I'd found this book myself, rather than the review gods let it be known to me. I've had four years to come by it, and now that it's due to be a hit movie, by the director of Monster House, it's been released again with a tie-in edition that rather gives the game away – the publicity image for the film proves that somehow our heroic partnership will unite and flee the city – crossing a river that Ember citizens only know of as an underground stretch used for power generation.

That's not to say there is not a heck of a lot to enjoy before we get to that non-surprise. The premise is perfectly intriguing – a very finely balanced mix between fantasy and sci-fi (call it steampunk if you must, I wouldn't in this instance) – where the morals about doing the best for yourself and for others and letting brightness come from the dark are, outside Doon's hobby, so subtle even before they're dropped in case of intrigue and adventure.

Ember is a fully realised place – and that's without the included map. Every building is a resource, a hidey-hole for oddments or fragments that someone somewhere may eventually need. The darkness people live in does mean rather a few mentions of lightbulbs are included, but the sense of the life lived in the city is perfectly done.

Beyond this the characters are very well crafted, and I include all the subsidiary workers, the mayor (Bill Murray in the filmic version), parents, baby sister and so on. I did have a few problems with the book however. As great as the characterisation involved in the search for the missing instructions is, I did feel it was a bit daft at times, and at odds with my impression of what had happened and how far in the distant past.

I can imagine people having problems with the pair constantly consulting the patchwork of clues they hang on to as they seek their exit from Ember, as well, although I didn't find this disagreeable. But on the whole I should remember the book as a great evocation of a very strange place, with its impact on the people written to perfection. Beyond that there are signs that, for me as an adult reader, and not of the nine - thirteen year old target audience, the book did not quite go far enough to devote as much energy to the quest.

There remains a healthy deal of mystery to the city and its leaving for the right reader, however, and they would certainly add half a star to my Bookbag rating. It remains to be seen if the three sequels get a similar Hollywood treatment, but from the summaries I have carefully found elsewhere they seem to be quite different to this volume, and so unable to carry the lovely sense of strange, claustrophobic darkness this book can be recommended for.

We at the Bookbag are grateful to Corgi for our review copy.

Buy The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau at

Buy The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau at


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