I enjoy some post-apocalyptic fiction when I can get some, same as any other mommy in her 30s with a pack of kids and a penchant for reading. But sometimes I'd like something a bit less gritty than Cormac McCarthy's The Road or even Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games series. If you ever find yourself in the same boat, then Jeanne DuPrau's The City of Ember series is the one for you. Do I sound like an infomercial yet?
Let's break it down. The first book, The City of Ember, takes place in a city far below the earth's surface. The reader catches on quickly that the city is underground but the inhabitants have no idea that the world could be anything different than dark and cold and dependent on electricity for light. They've been down there for over 250 years, at least 50 years longer than the original Builders had in mind when they created the city and sent people down there to live after the Disaster that destroyed the surface. Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow are the heroes of our story, young people who realize that their mayor is corrupt, that the generator that keeps everyone with light and heat is dying, and that a mysterious message from the past will lead them out of Ember. To where, they have no idea. They don't even know what out of Ember could possibly be like. They follow and hunt down clues, deal with adults who help and hinder, and have some truly heart-pounding moments where the reader has to wonder if they will ever leave Ember. The book is geared towards tween readers, meaning 9-12 year olds, depending on reading ability and interest. For me, it was a fast, easy but intense read. Loved it.
The second installment, The People of Sparks picks up where The City of Ember leaves off, like a mere second later. I don't know how to talk about this book without spoiling the first, but let's say that Lina and Doon have a new set of challenges and new cultures to adapt to. It was interesting and compelling, but a bit heavy-handed. There is a huge message of non-violence and the consequences of bigotry and mob mentality, which would be interesting to discuss with a younger reader. I found it interesting, but not as exciting as the first book. Then again, how often do you encounter a book that addresses these topics in a way for a tween to understand it?
The third installment is actually a prequel to The City of Ember, called The Prophet of Yonwood. It takes place mid-21st century in North Carolina where a woman has seen a vision of the future and it is desolate and destroyed. She becomes semi-comatose and her incoherent ramblings are interpreted by a Bible-thumping, militaristic woman named Mrs. Beeson, who twists the words into whatever serves her own agenda. Dissenters are punished severely. Eleven-year-old Nickie and her aunt come to town to deal with the mansion that Nickie's great-grandfather has left behind at his death. Nickie is fascinated by the town and its inhabitants, but soon falls victim to the machinations of Mrs. Beeson. She slowly begins to see that blindly following beliefs of those around her is not the way to make the world a better place. Again we see this message about mob mentality, blindly following the crowd and intolerance. I found this book to be the slowest read of them all, since it's mostly Nickie dealing with the situation she's in. Not until the very last chapter did I feel like I knew what the purpose of this installment was, despite DuPrau's message of non-violence and independent thinking. It's probably my least favorite and since it doesn't conclusively explain the events that lead to the Disaster and the settlement of Ember, it doesn't really feel necessary. I'm waiting for my daughter to finish reading it so I can pick her brain about what she thought of it.
The fourth, and final, installment was The Diamond of Darkhold and here we get back to some of the action and compelling story-telling of the first book. We're back to Lina and Doon and their desperate attempt to help the citizens of Ember, which leads them to a ruined city with a tyrannical patriarch waiting to capture anyone who crosses his path. It had the same excitement as the first book and not nearly the preachy overtones of the second and third books. Not that books shouldn't have a message, but I wonder if she could have integrated these messages into the other stories instead of writing two books full of morality lessons. We finally get a firm resolution to the series in this book and it feels right and complete. The most horrifying aspect of the book is some people's nonchalance towards the value of books, often burning them for firewood. Gave me chills. Doon and Lina plead with these people to stop but they can't read and see no need for it, so why not? If ever I find myself in a post-apocalyptic world and desperate for firewood, heaven help me if I start burning books.
The series as a whole was interesting and a different take on mere survival in a desolate world. It was about friendship and tolerance, problem solving and independent thinking, non-violence and humanity and other aspects of building a functioning society. Pretty hefty topics for the age demographic DuPrau was aiming at, but even when I thought it was a bit preachy, it didn't feel unapproachable and incomprehensible to your average twelve-year-old. That's impressive, I think. Maybe we can save those kids from reading Lord of the Flies or some other such horrifying book and try this series instead.