Thursday, October 30, 2008

Book Review: Jeanne DuPrau's City of Ember


So, yeah, I'm basically the last person on Earth to read this. I mean, it looked good and stuff, but, well, different. A little too different, if you know what I mean.

Yeah, me neither. I don't know why, it just didn't appeal to me, despite the shiny cover.

But... Oh, how wrong I was. I loved it. Loved, loved, loved it.

See, I'm writing something similar. Completely different, but similar. See, I'm working on this book. A scifi. In space and all. And a murder mystery. So, yeah, completely different...but also the same. Constrained, limited area for population to live? Check. A corrupt governing body? Check. Two kids trying to figure it all out? Check. A mysterious beginning/end to the society? Check.

So, this book actually worked out very well for me, and was quite apropos.

Five Sentence Plot Summary: Lina and Doon are both coming of age in a city underground...although they don't know it's underground. It's just home to them; all their life, and all the life of their parents and grandparents, have been spent in Ember, a city built (by the Builders) to protect the remains of society from what seems to be a post-apocalyptic world aboveground. But Ember is dying. And Doon and Lina are trying to figure out a way back to the top of the world...even if the mayor would rather be king of an empty empire.

So what can we, as writers, learn from this novel?

1. A different world
: In my opinion, this is where YA/MG lit sells SFF: different worlds. One reason why I came to love MG/YA so much is because I like fantasy--but the adult fantasy all followed the same format: Girl has magic power! Beautiful elves! Grumpy dwarves! Long, unpronounceable names! A life-tree! Magic! Gratuitous sex! Battle! The End! ...or... Boy finds sword! repeat other format, ad nauseum. Oh, and somewhere in there, you need a snow covered mountain and an excuse to cross it in a blizzard, a good guy turned bad, and a beloved wizard turned dead. You know, basically anything Tolkein wrote, except with different names.

BUT. MG/YA SFF is different. With a MG/YA audience, you actually have, you know, creativity. And The City of Ember is no exception to the rule. DeParu constructs an entirely new world here, and she gives it enough detail to make it believable. I have never read another book quite like this one, both in setting and theme, and that makes it wonderful. And while I'm sure she had influence in writing (who doesn't?), for the life of me, I cannot tell what kinds of works influenced her because she is so very unique.

2. Don't explain everything:
While DuPrau does create a whole new world, what she doesn't do is belabor it with too much world building. This is another mistake of adult SFF, the SF part of that in particular. I would like SF more if I didn't have to spend 100 of the 400 page tome reading about how the starship's engine worked. Who cares?! Throw me some action!

That's what DuPrau does. She gives us a short (3 page) introduction that gives the basic premise of the set-up for why Ember was created, but only the important stuff is there: the city is underground to ensure that the human race isn't wiped out from something, and there's plans for evacuating the city after about 200 years...but the plans are hidden so no one leaves earlier than that. That's it. We're not bogged down with details as to why/how/when Ember was made. Just the facts, ma'am.


3. Create mystery
: Spoliers! Highlight for this section: So, part of the story is a mystery. In the introduction I just mentioned, the Builders of Ember wanted to make sure that no one leaved the city before it was safe to return aboveground. Therefore, they wrote instructions for the exodus down, locked it in a box, and gave it to the mayor with instructions to ensure the box wasn't opened before time...but through a series of events, the box and the instructions come to Lina in a half-destroyed state. Lina and Doon spend most of the book figuring out the instructions so that they can leave Ember. Which means the reader then has the clues and tries to figure it out with them.

So, ultimately, what I'm saying here is that by adding solveable clues for the reader to figure stuff out makes the reader more engaged and active in the story. Even though Ember isn't a mystery, by adding an element of mystery, it makes the story much more better.

The Bottom Line: 1) Make a different world, something entirely new that hasn't been done before--or at least an element of unique-ness. 2) Focus on character and the story more than building that unique world. 3) Add mystery, even if the story isn't a mystery.
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