Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Dystopian underground

In what we assume is the far future, Lina and her friend Doon live in what they believe to be the last bastion of humanity. A disintegrating city surrounded by darkness is reliant on the last of their dwindling stores. The Builders left Instructions for their descendants, which have been lost. Most of the townsfolk are content to continue scraping along with reduced rations, hoping that the Mayor will somehow find a solution. In a scene reminiscent of The Giver, Lina is pleased to receive her assignment for her new job: that of Messenger. Doon, on the other hand is assigned to the pipeworks. Together, they end up piecing together the secrets hidden in their city.

I'd been meaning to get around to reading this book for ages... and somehow it seems like in a blink of an eye, it's turned into a whole series, and a (not terribly successful) movie. I listened to this on audio. Wendy Dillon created all of the unique and distinct characters, for a fully realized sound recording with a bit of music and foley sound effects here and there. Lina's voice seemed so very young, and child-like. A bit carefree. Doon is the "responsible" one seeing the danger in the city as they are running low on supplies, including lightbulbs. I was mystified by their situation at first. The adults in the town seem strangely incurious, bureaucratic and ineffective. A lot of them seemed like mealy-mouthed whiners to me, because they see the supplies running out, but aren't willing to fight for any solutions.

The city is surrounded by darkness, and beyond the trashdumps are the Unexplored Regions. I saw a few plotholes here. Everyone has a ravening, unceasing fear of the dark. Everyone? Really? With no exceptions? People have difficulty navigating their own houses that they've lived in all their lives without the help of the lights? Over several generations in a town of a fair sized population, not one person has ever happened to be blind and thus not afraid of the dark? Mysterious. The pace of this was excruciatingly slow. Some readers could argue that people who have no knowlege of anything else in the outside world WOULD take a long time to puzzle out things which might be obvious to us. I wondered too, if I would have enjoyed this book more if I had read it (so that I could read it quickly) rather than listening to it, where I was forced to follow along at the careful, slow pace as set out. This is a solidly imagined world -- Lina's knowledge of flora and fauna for example, is limited to a few insects and a couple of varieties of garden vegetables. She has trouble understanding what a boat is, or how to use a candle.

The story has a satisfying ending, but is still quite open for more in the series. The title, of course, seems a bit allegorical (The City of Ember is nearly out of light and the next book, The People of Sparks is presumeably about the city folk's fresh start in a new community) I don't know if I'll be tackling the rest of this series anytime soon... between this and Philip Reeve's excellent though thoroughly terrifying Hungry City Chronicles, I've had quite my fill of post-apocolyptic dystopian future epics. I see this series aimed at teens, which surprises me a bit. The characters are both twelve, but there's no romance of any sort in the book, and their mindset seems so much younger. I'd pitch this to fourth and fifth graders, no problem.

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