Last fall I raced through City of Ember and really enjoyed the world and the characters. The ending wasn't a cliffhanger per se, but it really left me wondering what would happen next...so much so that I raced out and bought the next book. Sadly, life got busy and it took me another 4 months to finally read the continuation.
In Sparks there are some rather significant changes to the plot dynamics which allow for some intriguing new commentary on humanity and social interactions. We're given a post-apocalyptic world in which humanity is trying to recover and rebuild. This high level genre is compounded by being seen primarily through the eyes of children and also by making the Emberites ignorant of the disasters that befell humanity or even of human history at all. In fact, through the entire first book, they had no knowledge of any other human culture at all and thought their microcosm to be the extent of humanity.
The main new dynamic in the book acted as a commentary on the interactions between people in strained situations and the passions which lead to prejudice, anger, and eventually to war. The plot separated for a time the two main characters from Ember, Lina and Doon.
Lina acts as the reader's guide to understanding the history of this new world and how humanity fell into war as well as understanding the current geography and social structure. She undertakes a journey to one of the old cities in the hopes of finding something akin to the drawing she made in the first book. Instead, she finds disaster and learns about war, disease and destruction.
Doon serves as the reader's guide to watching two struggling groups of people dealing with hardships and sacrifices as the Emberites are taught about life in the new world and how to survive above ground. He feels the sting of hostility as the people of Sparks grow resentful of the Emberites consuming their food and other resources. That resentment grows into mistrust and eventually sparks begin to fly (pardon the pun).
As tensions grow between the people, one of the Emberites named Tick Hassler (an antagonistic name if ever I saw one *grin*) grows hungry for a fight and begins riling up the people of Ember to prepare for battle. Doon feels conflicted throughout and Lina (once she returns) has new found knowledge into the near-destruction of humanity. Unfortunately, by then, things are spiraling out of control and it's difficult to see a viable resolution.
I really enjoyed the character dynamics DuPrau set up in this novel. With very few exceptions, all of the players were honestly trying to do good. She set up some great conflicts which resulted in each group of people trying to do what was good, and yet that "good" was conflicting and causing tension. It's the old adage "you can't please everyone all the time." There are always self-interests of individuals and even of groups which will collide with other individuals and groups. This book presented great examples of how people interact and shows motivation for making compromises and looking at the situation from the point of view of the other person.
It's difficult to compare to Ember and say which I liked better. I think I preferred Sparks because the plot and dynamic was more interesting to think about. Still, they are each presenting such different concepts, that it's hard to pit one against the other. They are great stories with a lot of thoughtful concepts to ponder. It's actually quite thought provoking, especially when considering the fact that it's a children's book. Children and youth will enjoy the vivid characters and the action. Adults can still enjoy it with its fluid writing and its deeper themes.
4 stars (out of 5)