Okay, so I admit it; I decided to read The City of Ember after seeing a trailer for the movie. I still haven’t seen the film (I’m not sure if it was even released here in New Zealand, but hopefully the DVD will turn up in due course), but I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I bought the sequel pretty much as soon as I finished the first book, but it’s only now that I’ve had a moment to read it.
As the book begins, a group of just over 400 hungry, weary and footsore people arrive on the outskirts of the village of Sparks. These are the survivors of Ember, the ones who made it out of the dying city into the strange and amazing and terrifying world above ground. They’ve been walking since they emerged into the light, desperately looking for some sign of other human beings.
But Sparks is a small village, finally growing prosperous after generations of struggle since it was settled in the years after the Disaster. It’s population is smaller than the number of strangers who have arrived needing food and shelter, understanding almost nothing about the kind of life the villagers live. The leaders of Sparks agree to let the Emberites stay, but only for six months, while they learn what they will need to know to start their own village.
Inevitably, tension builds between the two groups of people. The villagers are unhappy to have to share their limited stores and frustrated by the apparently simple things the Emberites don’t know or understand, while the people of Ember are gradually coming to realise there is no way they will be ready to found their own settlement in six months, at which time it will almost be winter, a concept that terrifies them once they come to understand what winter actually is. Both Lina and Doon try to help in their own way. Lina takes the opportunity to join a couple of roamers who scavenge old-time towns and buildings for useful items, to go and look for the city she has seen in her dreams. Doon, on the other hand, remains in Sparks, caught between the need to find a way to live peacefully with the villagers and the increasingly strident and potentially violent leadership of a Tick, a charismatic young man from Ember.
It’s interesting that The People of Sparks, built on the conflict between two groups of people who are both right in their own way and yet can’t find a way to co-exist peacefully, reads as a simpler book than The City of Ember which had an apparently much simpler theme. It’s a good little book, but it doesn’t have the same atmosphere that the previous book did, and that is to its detriment. Or perhaps, I realise as I type this, it’s that the atmosphere is different. Everyone is out in the blazing sun of summer here and it shines a pitiless light on everything, clearly showing the lack of an easy solution in a way that makes a complex problem look strangely simple (if possibly one without a solution).
Yes, I think that’s it. Even for Lina, who gets away from the growing hostility in Sparks, the truth she leans about what she hopes may be a new home for her people is stark and harsh. The city is totally destroyed, beyond any kind of recovery and seemingly haunted by the ghosts of its many dead. If there is any truth to her dream of a living city, it must lie elsewhere as this is not it.
And ironically, in the end the solution turns out to be plain and simple as well. Perhaps not simple to keep living every day, but simple at a turning point moment which is where the book ends. The newly combined, 700-odd people of the enlarged Sparks will still face troubles as they try to integrate into a single community but now they have a warning of what can go wrong and an example of the right way to go, to help guide them along the journey.
With the introduction of a whole new community of people, this book obviously introduces a variety of new characters. While all the villagers are decently drawn, for me the new character who shines the most is Maddy. Not actually from Sparks, she left her failing home village with the nephew of Sparks’ doctor, who is a roamer. An apparently indifferent character when she is first introduced, she turns out to be wise and daring and a delight to read, and she will be a credit to Sparks now she has decided to settle there. She is the one who gives Lina the secret of how to stop the building hate between the two groups, the secret Lina passes to Doon and both of them act upon at the book’s climax to bring peace between the people of Sparks and the people of Ember.
The roamers are also a great addition to duPrau’s post-Disaster world. Apart from Lina’s trip with Caspar and Maddy, the story is focused in a small area, meaning what we see is a place that could be any village struggling to survive in tough conditions, giving us little feeling of a post-Apocalyptic world. But the roamers go out and hunt through the ruins of civilisation, showing us a glimpse of the world we know now that has fallen. The transportation of the roamers (and around the village as well) is very cool. With numerous hulks of dead cars and trucks about, the people have taken trucks mostly, stripped out the weight of their useless engines and hitched them to oxen to pull them. It’s a great image and one that really appealed to me. The other way to get around faster than a walk is to use a bicycle, and that is another common mode of transport. Lina, who loved being a messenger in Ember, quickly comes to love riding a bicycle and I’ll be interested to see if there is more message running (or rather message biking) in her future.
My immediate reaction to this book was that, while I certainly liked it, I liked The City of Ember better. But as a couple have days have gone past and I’ve further clarified my thoughts by writing this, I realise that I probably liked it just as much – just in a very different way. Both books were very much defined by their atmosphere – the darkness and sense of ending in Ember and the bright, merciless sun baking the earth in Sparks. That made for two very different books, but also two very good books and I recommend them both.
Being me, after finishing The People of Sparks, I jumped online and bought the next one, The Prophet of Yonwood. This one should be interesting as it is set 50 years before the founding of Ember as the world is suffering through the Disaster (which turned out to be protracted, painful and destructive rather than one short bang that destroyed everything. I’ve heard less positive things about this one, so I’m looking forward to making up my own mind. Hopefully it won’t be too long before I get to read it.
The People of Sparks
The Books of Ember, Book 2