Book Review: The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau

The world in Jeanne DuPrau’s City of Ember is falling apart. The Builders designed the city generations ago, but only provided for its survival for 200 years. The secrets to saving the city have been lost, and now the citizens are in a panic as their provisions run low and confusion sweeps through the masses.

Enter 12 year old friends and recent school graduates Lina and Doon. They are both convinced that answers are within their reach, and when Lina finds an old, mysterious document – chewed up and partially destroyed by her baby sister – the friends work together to fill in the missing pieces of the message. They are optimistic and courageous, and their perserverence has profound effects on the future of Ember.

There is an interesting paradox in the world DuPrau has created here – while it seems to take place in the future, the lives of the citizens are very primitive. There is no technology for communication and colors like green and blue only exist as expensive and rare colored pencils. The entire city is lit by a system of floodlights, the citizens being woken at 6am when the system turns on, and going to bed at the 9pm “lights out.” No one has discovered how to make “moveable light,” so they are absolutely restricted to the city’s schedule. Knowledge is limited, and children only go to school until the age of 12. The city library is a mostly unused vault of makeshift books. The shadows beyond the city are called the Unknown Regions, and very few dare to enter them.

I like the small details that hint at life beyond Ember – mainly, Doon’s fascination with bugs, and Lina’s care of a tiny bean sprout. It’s this curiosity in both of them that make them the most likely saviors of Ember. It seems that everyone else is content in their ignorance, an extension of the darkness that is always just a breath away. Darkness without, darkness within.

For me, the story just sprang to life in the last quarter of the book. I simply could not stop reading until I found out what was going to happen to Lina and Doon. I cared about them, I cared about Ember. I think part of DuPrau’s success with this book is that she follows the “Show, Don’t Tell” approach and let’s us see through the characters’ actions who they are and why we should care about them.

I’ve been careful not to give anything away in this review, but just know that there are several interesting revelations and an intriguing foundation for the continuation of this story, found in DuPrau’s sequel, People of Sparks.


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