The City of Ember

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Holy crow, I think I read this book when I was in middle school and I haven’t forgotten the impression it left on me. A few years later, I wanted to write a dystopian novel. Doon was the brooding, sensitive, intelligent guy that I always admired (and crushed on…), and Lina was the high-energy, high-maintenance, well-meaning but ultimately naïve counterpart.

The setting is absolutely a character. The suffocating, pitch-dark edges of the world, the light only coming from yellowish lamps, the frightening blackouts, the overused clothing… Yeah. Imagine a civilization where people from 1817 were all forced to share the same clothing, technology, and buildings for 200 years in the dark, and now it’s today.

Anyway, the book has a simple premise: Lina and Doon are two 12-year-olds finishing school and accepting job placement from the Mayor of their city. Lina, who loves to run, wants nothing more than to serve her city as Messenger (basically acting as a human text message. Or, actually, the satellites that send texts) and Doon wants to be actually useful and investigate the generator in the Pipeworks. The generator is the often-failing machine that keeps the lights of Ember on per an underground river. With increasing blackouts (the lights shutting off), limited supplies (including food), and a city full of frightened people struggling to get by, the future looks bleak. Without giving away spoilers, I’ll just say the two kids work together while dodging sketchy and selfish characters and blackouts in order to save the lights in the city. However, things aren’t as simple as they seem, and their solution ends up being something entirely different.

Props to the author for her cast of interesting characters, gray morality, super-duper great job with worldbuilding, and high stakes — and emotional toll.

And… man, the ending scene! I’ll never forget it. Brings tears to my eyes every time.