The Green Ember by S. D. Smith is a children’s story about rabbits. Brother and sister Heather and Picket live a normal (for storybook rabbits), almost idyllic life with their parents and baby brother until one day when a mysterious stranger comes to talk with their parents. Heather and Picket are shooed out to pick berries, but while they are gone, their home is attacked by wolves and burned. Not knowing where their parents are and being spotted by wolves, they try for a harrowing escape, being rescued at the last minute by an uncle they didn’t know they had and his adopted son, Smalls.
Their uncle, Wilfred, and Smalls take them to a community of rabbits hidden away. They see and hear evidences of other wolf attacks. While rabbit forces are training to fight the wolves, rabbit artisans and workmen are keeping their skills honed for a time when the heir of their fallen king will rise up and claim his place and lead them to a season of peace. When injustices or suffering occur, they comfort themselves with the saying, “It shall not be so in the Mended Wood.” Meanwhile discord threatens the community, and Heather and Picket struggle to find their place, especially when they learn their family’s history with the king.
I don’t read children’s stories other than classics often, though I agree with C. S. Lewis that a good children’s story should appeal to adults, too. I follow The Story Warren, where Smith is a regular contributor, so I saw all the announcements there when the book came out, but I still wasn’t particularly inclined to read it. But when it came up for sale as an audiobook, I figured, why not?
I was expecting to be wowed, and maybe that’s the biggest problem with why I wasn’t. I think when expectations are so high, that can actually set one up for disappointment. I’ve seen it compared to Narnia, and though there are similarities, I think such a comparison helps set up those lofty expectations and the resulting letdown.
It’s not a bad story at all. It has a lot of great elements. I tend to enjoy “coming of age during adversity” type stories generally. I bought and looked back through the Kindle version after listening to the audio, and the things that bothered me while listening didn’t stand out so much while reading. I am not sure if that’s because it lends itself better to being read than listened to or if I was already familiar with it, so certain things did not then stand out.
I think mainly the writing just needs to be tightened up a bit. For instance, in a boat ride with Heather, Picket, Wilfred, and Smalls, Wilfred tells the children, “How about I give you the quick and almost unsatisfactory version” of what was going on. Heather agrees. Then Wilfred says, “So how about I give you a bit of the rundown on things?” And I am thinking, “OK, you just said that, but yes, go ahead.”
There’s a lot of he said, she said, Heather said, Picket said, Wilfred said, etc. That stood out more in the audio because the conversation tags are read with a different voice than the conversation. I don’t think that many are needed, but some variance would help.
Then there was the case of a confusing pronoun: “The oars bit hard into the water, and they shot forward.” Makes it sound like the oars shot forward rather than the boat. The very same mistake occurs at the beginning of the next chapter: “Then he dug in with both oars, and they shot forward.”
A few other examples:
“With one hand he unsheathed his blade, launching it from its sheath toward Uncle Wilfred, who caught it by its hilt.” “From its sheath” could have been left out, making it a much stronger sentence – unsheathing it means taking it from its sheath. Perhaps Smith didn’t think young readers would know what “unsheath” means. But if he can trust them with words like salination, sagacity, and discomfiture, I think they can handle unsheath.
“They looked angry, or most of them did” could have been stronger simply as, “Most of them looked angry.”
“‘Kyle?’ Heather asked, surprised. ‘Yes, and I see this surprises you.'” Seriously? Better would have been something like, “Heather asked, eyes wide and eyebrows raised.” Then, “Yes, and I see this surprises you.”
“Heather stood on tiptoes and dodged back and forth to see over the shoulder of the tall, swaying rabbit in front of her. She wanted to see Mrs. Weaver” who was speaking to the group. Instead of “show, don’t tell,” this is like telling us after showing us. I think the second sentence is unnecessary, but if it really needs to be spelled out, it could have been tucked into the sentence rather than added as a weak passive sentence: “Fervently trying to see Mrs. Weaver, Heather stood…,” etc.
There is a lot of repetition, sometimes within the same paragraph, such as the earlier sentences about the oars and about Wilfred sharing the situation. Here’s another set, at an assembly of different factions: “Behind them, as if separate from the Cloud Mountain community, stood most of the lords, captains, and soldiers who had come from the secret citadels.” And just three sentences later: “There was a large gap between the last of the Cloud Mountain rabbits and the citadel warriors.” Those could have been incorporated into one just by adding “far” in front of the first sentence. In-between these two are the sentence about most of them looking angry and an unnecessary explanatory sentence that the citadel people “appeared to resent this assembly and were making it clear by standing apart.” I think the latter is another instance of unnecessary telling – the rest of the paragraph shows this without spelling it out.
Do I sound horribly nitpicky and critical? I don’t mean to. I really don’t read or listen to books with an editing pen handy, ready to pounce on any little infraction. But when there are a lot of these kinds of things, they’re like speed bumps to the story, slowing down the progress and making me stop to think, “Didn’t he just say that?” or “Did he say what I think he said?” I doubt Mr. Smith will ever see this, but I’m pointing these things out just to encourage writers to be better writers. I think the arc of the story, the characters, the conflict, and most everything else is fine: it’s just these little things that could be tightened up to make it stronger, or at least provide fewer distractions.
To be fair, let me share some of the great quotes that stood out to me:
“If you aren’t angry about the wicked things happening in the world all around, then you don’t have a soul.”
“Why not just apologize to Smalls, to everyone, and move on? But he couldn’t do it. It would feel too much like surrendering ground he felt entitled to.” Thought that was quite insightful – that’s exactly how one feels when not wanting to apologize.
“All of life is a battle against fear. We fight it on one front, and it sneaks around to our flank.”
My place beside you,
My life for yours,
‘Til the Green Ember rises
Or the end of the world!
I like the way the community is not just surviving, but also focusing on and preparing for the time to come: “Here we anticipate the Mended Wood, the Great Wood healed. Those painters are seeing what is not yet but we hope will be. They are really seeing, but it’s a different kind of sight. They anticipate the Mended Wood. So do all in this community in our various ways. We sing about it. We paint it. We make crutches and soups and have gardens and weddings and babies. This is a place out of time. A window into the past and the future world. We are heralds, you see, my dear, saying what will surely come. And we prepare with all our might, to be ready when once again we are free.”
The story ends rather abruptly, obviously setting up for a sequel, which is due out in September: Ember Falls. Between these two a prequel was published, The Black Star of Kingston. There’s even talk of a movie version of The Green Ember.
It’s not an overtly Christian book, but there are spiritual parallels, mainly of a fractured, hurting world longing for its king to come, and many spiritual truths along the way. A good discussion of this aspect is in this review.
The illustrations by Zach Franzen are gorgeous. I was glad the Kindle included them.
If you’d like to read a much more enthusiastic review, see Carrie’s – or the great majority on Amazon or Goodreads.
Genre: Children’s fantasy
My rating: 7 out of 10
Objectionable elements: None except for those who might be very sensitive to the fighting. But it’s no more graphic than the Narnia or Tolkien books.
Recommendation: Yes, I gladly recommend it.
(This bit at the end is new to me – I’m borrowing and adapting it from what Rebekah does.
(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)