Sunday, October 26, 2008

Review - The City of Ember

The City of Ember (The First Book Of Ember) The City of Ember by Jeanne Duprau

I may not have heard about this book had it not picked up a movie deal. And yet, now that I've read it, I'm torn as to whether or not I want to see the movie. Not because it's a bad book/story...quite the contrary. I'm worried that it could get ruined. I bought a copy for my brother for his birthday and the new edition includes pix from the movie. One picture included captures Bill Murray as the mayor during one of the opening scenes. Seeing that picture redeemed my hope...I think he could probably do a good job pulling off the pretentious and condescending demeanor required for the role. Hopefully the rest of the cast does well and hopefully the departures from the text are for the best. The book itself was very simplistic and obviously a children's book (8-10 is target age I believe), and yet it explores deeper themes and presents the characters intriguing and mature conflicts.

Characters, Setting, etc

The central character in the story is Lina, a young girl living in a city of darkness and dreaming of a city of light. Her character is interesting and powerful. She's not overly audacious, but she does have an adventurous spirit and once actions really start unfolding, her courage shines through and she is willing to make the tough decisions to move forward.

The other main protagonist, Doon, is a more presumptuous character. It's not so much that he has more audacity than Lina, it's just that his is unbridled while hers is restrained. He is impetuous and quick to rush in while she is thoughtful and meticulous.

I think the two protagonists serve as a good counterpoint to one another and the author does a good job of using them to help show children the need to take risks and be brave while also being judicious and thoughtful before taking wild risks.

Most of the secondary characters get very little fleshing out. Even the mayor is kept at a distance, though we get good insight into his actions and thoughts, enough so we can establish him as a counteragent to our protagonists despite his authoritative stance and his claims of doing what's best for the people.

Having seen the preview for the movie, I was able to deduce the state of the City of Ember. Trying to block that out, I enjoyed the portrayal of the city and its existence. The descriptions of the layout of the city and the darkness beyond was well done. I loved the detail used to explain many of the simple things we take for granted in our world.

Plot, Pacing, etc

The plot itself wasn't anything revolutionary, but the details and the execution were intriguing. We have a city surrounded by darkness. Its only light is provided by a river water run generator pumping electricity into the city, but since nobody in the city really understands electricity or how the generator works, the city is in peril since the generator is obviously breaking down.

The quick paced style and simple language helped the story move along quickly and I see how it could definitely hold the attention of a younger reader. As an adult, I think I would have liked some more twists and turns in the adventure but since the audience is children, I think the overall complexity is good. (This is my main point of worry for the movie...because the plot itself is relatively simple, I'm worried that the movie makers may ruin things by adding unnecessary complexity to appease adults)

I thought an interesting thematic element was making vocabulary and language be part of the obstacle Lina and Doon face. As Lina initially begins trying to understand the instructions she's found, she has difficulty plugging in the right words just because she may not have the same vocabulary as the adult that originally wrote it. Audience is always very key when selecting the language used in writing. Once Lina and Doon progress on their journey, they find new objects they don't understand. Even though the objects are labeled, these common objects are foreign to the children and they find themselves confused as to their intent. I applaud the author's insight to incorporate this subtle narrative on the evolution of knowledge and language in her story.


As I mentioned, I think the pacing was great and would do a good job of keeping a younger reader interested and engaged to the end. As I saw the pages fall out from underneath me, I began to be VERY worried as I neared the end of the novel that there would not be a good stopping point. In fact, the last 10-20 pages of the book flew by and tied up a lot of the material nicely while at the same time leaving many questions left unanswered and ready for a sequel. In fact, I'm glad I read this book years after its release because I desperately want to know what happens next and I'm glad I could just go grab the sequel now rather than waiting for it to be written.

I think this story is intriguing and wholesome and provides a good mental playground for child readers. I think the characters are accessible and the adventure is fun. The themes of the story are subtle but it provides good messages about teamwork, planning, and working things through. It's definitely not an anti-adult novel, but it does provide children a method of escaping to a world where the children are the heroes and they know and do better than the adults, perhaps due to their youthful exuberance, curiosity and passion.

I'm looking forward to continuing with the series and seeing the movie.

3 solid stars

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