by Rebecca Stead
First Light is a 2007 Cybils nominee.
Twelve-year-old Peter lives with his parents in a small apartment in New York. Peter’s father is a glaciologist, which involves both University teaching and fieldwork. Peter feels cheated, because he never gets to see the “superman” side of his father: climbing glaciers, scaring off polar bears, and driving a dogsled. So when Peter’s father gets a grant to study global warming in Greenland, Peter jumps at the opportunity to go with him. Peter’s mother will also be going on the trip, as will graduate student Jonas, who is half-Inuit.
Thea lives in a closed city under the ice. Thea’s ancestors, fleeing from persecution, found a safe haven under the ice and built the city of Gracehope there. Now, seven generations later, the community is outgrowing the space and the resources there. Thea proposes opening up a passage to the outside world, in order to expand the city. But her proposal is blocked by her own grandmother, Gracehope’s council chief, who plays on the fears of the other council members. Then Thea receives help from an unknown source, and discovers secrets her community leaders have tried to hide. Thea and her friend Mattias work in secret to discover a way to the surface.
While Peter’s parents and Jonas are out doing fieldwork, Peter begins to explore the surrounding countryside, accompanied by sled dog Sasha. He also begins to explore the strange ability he seems to have developed, which enables him to see far away things as if they are close, although doing so causes him a raging headache. When Peter and Thea meet, the two young people work together to try to save Gracehope before it’s too late.
Almost every review that I’ve seen of this book compares it to The City of Ember, and it’s easy to see why: both deal with closed cities shut off from the outside world, cities which are running out of resources. In both, young people seek to find a way out to save the city. But for all the similarities, City of Ember and First Light are very different books. First Light is a more strongly character-driven novel, which puts more emphasis on the development of Thea and Peter in the context of their environment, and less emphasis on the “solve the mystery of how to get out of the city” which was central to The City of Ember, although both books have elements of both. I loved both The City of Ember and First Light, so I’d have a hard time saying that one is better than the other; they’re just very different.
First Light is one of those books that draws you in to its world and makes you care about the characters. I was so captivated by the book that I didn’t want to put it down, and pretty much read it straight through in a short time. This is a perfect book for anyone who enjoys reading about real young people in exotic, but not too fantastic, situations. There’s also a lot of appeal for dog lovers in this book; besides Peter’s dog Sasha, all the people in Gracehope have a bonded dog companion.