City of Ember is built upon an intriguing premise. A two-hundred year-old city deep beneath the earth is the last refuge of humankind. But supplies are running short, the mighty electric generator is breaking down, time is running out, and somewhere along the line the secret instructions for returning to the surface have been lost.
When it comes to atmosphere, Ember's got it. Rusty pipe-works drip and spurt, a web of overhead lamps illuminates the drab city streets, citizens wear thrice made-over clothes, and no one dares to venture into the darkness beyond. The characters are simple but compelling, and the best parts of the story focus on the choices that different people make when faced with the imminent collapse of everything they know. Do you wait for someone to come and save you? Do you horde supplies for yourself while everyone else around you goes hungry? Do you keep patching the pipes and hope for the best? Or do you risk everything to find a real solution?
The only thing keeping City of Ember from going down as a great science fiction classic, in my mind at least, was the cheap movie tricks that made the film feel like a grade-B clunker instead of a serious work of art. Cheap trick number one : the giant mole. My daughter could not get over the giant mole. An hour later she was still complaining, "If there were a mole that size running around in the pipe tunnels, someone would have noticed it and killed it! They wouldn't let it go around eating people!"
The giant mole was not in the book. Ember author Jeanne DuPrau is probably rolling her eyes. I hope they paid her well for the movie rights.