The City of Ember is a rule-bound place, where all the lights go out at 9 each night, everyone rises early for breakfast, and careful recycling is a way of life. Lately, though, the lights have begun flickering. Supplies are shorter each year, and some foods are no longer available.
Until their 12th year, the children of the City of Ember go to school. But at the end of that year, they are assigned the jobs they will do for years after, perhaps to the end of their lives. Lina yearns to be a Messenger, running free in the streets, learning the secrets of the city. Doon wants desperately to be an electrician's assistant or a pipeworker, because he dreams of fixing the ancient, failing generators of the city.
When each receives the assignment the other wants, they switch jobs, and begin a conspiracy that will not end until they learn how to save the entire city. Along the way, they solve an ancient puzzle, defeat the greed and subterfuge of the Mayor and his minions, and discover a much wider world than either had ever dreamed existed.
When I read children's literature, I look for more than a tale well told. Juvenile science fiction is not hard to come by, especially today in the age of Harry Potter. But fiction that lauds heroism (particularly the kind of courage which every child will have an opportunity to demonstrate), extolls the value of friendship, and shows when adult precepts and rules are worthwhile, and how to tell when they are not — that is uncommon. (Those qualities form the foundation of the Harry Potter stories, too, and explain the widespread appeal of the boy wizard and his friends.)
The City of Ember has that same appeal. Doon and Lina are courageous; they do things children would do, yet also show judgement, persistence and intelligence. These are kids who love their parents, and still see that they must take extraordinary steps outside the regimented life they have led. In the end, they do save their city, and if they do not battle great evil, they do encounter and overcome the kind of petty nastiness that is far more common in the world.
This book works best in tandem with its sequel, The People of Sparks. Together, they are an interesting story — even for an adult. I recommend it highly for boys and girls who want something better than comic-book heroes and video-game battles.