Lately when I finish YA fiction, my reaction is “…meh.”
This book had potential. A couple hundred years ago, Ember was created underground with everything necessary for survival, and for a while it worked. But now supplies are low, tension is high, and corruption is spread throughout the city. Rolling blackouts occur more frequently and for longer periods of time, which is the biggest threat to the citizens. Lina, a young girl and messenger apprentice for the city, grows suspicious when delivering a note to the mayor’s office, and Doon, a pipe-worker in the deep underground, thinks he’s found a way out of the city. To the unknown!
However, the writing fell flat by way of telling, not showing, and the plausibility of the plot is weak. Lina has no notable characteristics other than that she is the primary caretaker of her baby sister and that she likes to draw. As a writer, I know it’s a difficult task to make your protagonist special, whether that’s a physical mark or a capability or a talent that no one else has. Take, for example, Harry Potter. He’s not particularly brilliant and often stumbles across his conclusions by accident or with the help of much more powerful wizards, but he IS the chosen one, and everyone knows why. He has a special mark that links him to his innate abilities and he has to consistently make choices that could kill him or help him. While Lina’s life isn’t in any sort of dire straits, she’s unremarkable in every aspect and the lack of real danger aids her typicality.
Even the city seems unremarkable other than that it’s underground but no one has made any leaps forward as far as technological advances are concerned. Torches are a thing, apparently – and that’s the US-ian torch, not the British flashlight torch (goddamn limeys) – but eventually they burn out, and no one has created portable lamps or battery-powered anything, really. Is DuPrau’s novel an alternate timeline diverging from the past? It’s hard for me to believe that light is really the issue here.
Lina and Doon’s goal is to decipher a half-eaten note (courtesy of Lina’s baby sister) that contained instructions for how to get out of the city. I was mildly curious about where they would be getting out to, but not enough to want to pick up the rest of the series. I imagined a bunch of grey-faced anonymous blobs floating around in the background since no one else in this book was even remotely memorable. Even the mayor and the director of distribution, who doles out canned foods and supplies from the giant storerooms, were only vaguely evil. If you’re going to create an antagonist (especially one with a decently solid reason to cover up a conspiracy), make it better than, “Go away and never return to ask anymore silly questions.” Step up the game here, lady.
The monotony of the book was only propelled forward by the need to finish. I rarely give up on books and since this was a relatively quick read anyway, I labored through it. I’m getting kind of disillusioned with boring YA fiction – I appreciate the thematic and creative elements of a lot of the genre, but the repetition is tiring. Just because your book is about kids who border on their teen years doesn’t mean they’re particularly interesting. This should really be classified as a children’s book.