I can think of plenty of reasons not to review S.D. Smith's The Green Ember. For instance, ISLF is a site for genre fiction, not kid lit. (The Green Ember is a children's book.) Plus, I always think it's a bit awkward to post about titles with which I have a personal connection. (I served as a beta reader for a early draft of the manuscript.) And I truly try to avoid any impression of editorial subjectivity. (I'm a regular contributor to Story Warren, a site Smith started to help parents raise creative children.) So for all these reasons, I really ought to keep my trap shut.
But I'm not going to do that. I'm going to comment, observe, remark, and declare. Because The Green Ember is a good book. And good books are what ISLF is all about.
Heather and Picket are two young rabbits who live with their parents and baby brother in the elm-tree house at Nick Hollow. Busy with school and story time and a fast-paced version of fetch dubbed Starseek, they live lives that are, if not enchanted, at least content. All that, though, is about to change. One night, their father tells them a tale that's different than the usual bedtime diversions. A tale about King Jupiter the Great who served as Lord of the Thirty Warrens, ruling with justice and mercy. A tale of how King Jupiter was betrayed by a close confidant, cast down, and killed. Now savage wolves have seized the Great Wood where he held court and burned it. But one day King Jupiter's heir will return, and the Great Wood will be mended once more. Heather and Picket fall asleep that night with the story spinning in their minds. Little do they know that, while picking berries the next day, they'll spy lupine forms in the fields and see smoke ascending from the ruin of their home.
Here's the best way I can sum up The Green Ember for you: It reads as if Brian Jacques had Sam Gamgee's famous quote from The Return of the King ("Is everything sad going to come untrue?") nailed above his desk while writing a version of Redwall that wasn't awful. Far from being merely "not awful," though, Smith's first novel shows that he truly understands the essentials of storytelling. Ember picks up and rolls, its two young protagonists landing in near-constant peril of some sort or another from the fifth chapter on. Refreshingly, Smith doesn't defang the subject matter. Combatants die. Conflicts leave lasting scars. Internal politics roil old allies. And the book intentionally refuses to end neatly. Don't get me wrong, we're not talking Joe Abercrombie or George R.R. Martin here. The Green Ember is liberally seasoned with hope (and gorgeous pencil illustrations by Zach Franzen). But whenever the proceedings threaten to become saccharine, Smith tosses a little grit into the pot. The final pages find the characters with swords in their hands and a very long fight ahead of them. Indeed, the only real problem with the novel is its abrupt conclusion. I won't complain when fantasy authors decide to keep things short. Goodness knows we have too many doorstop-thick titles in the genre. But The Green Ember almost begs for a sequel. Here's to hoping that Smith pens it someday.
(Picture: CC 2014 by Zach Franzen; used by permission)