I've wanted to read Rebecca Stead's First Light for quite some time. It has this enticing first line: "Most boys his age had never touched paper." Which, given my insatiable appetite for dystopian fiction, was pretty much sufficient to make me want to read the book. I bought First Light a while back. I finally sat down to read it this weekend, after hearing a universal chorus of acclaim for Stead's upcoming novel, When You Reach Me (due out July 14th).
First Light is told in alternating chapters from the perspectives of Peter and Thea. Peter lives in New York City, and is the son of a glaciologist and a microbiologist. As the story begins, Peter is thrilled to learn that his family will be going on a six week expedition to Greenland. His pleasure in the trip is a bit overshadowed, however, by his mysterious headaches, and his odd ability to sometimes see across great distances. Not to mention his mother's occasional retreats from reality.
Thea lives in a town called Gracehope, located deep beneath a glacier. Her ancestors retreated beneath the ice many generations earlier, and Thea has never seen the outside world. As her story begins, however, resources are running out, and Gracehope is overcrowded. Thea, a descendent of Gracehope's original architect, proposes an expedition to the surface to look for ways to expand. Although her ideas are mercilessly trampled by Gracehope's leader, her own grandmother, Thea perseveres in her explorations.
First Light bears obviously similarities to Jeanne DuPrau's The City of Ember (underground city, plucky girl determined to find a way out, and save her people), which I loved. I must admit, however, that it took me a while to get into First Light. I'm not sure why, exactly. Maybe the two disconnected threads. Or the fact that it took a while, in both storylines, for the real action to begin. Nevertheless, First Light picked up for me about 1/3 of the way through, and I found the last third of the book quite engrossing. I thought that the author did an excellent job of tying the threads of the story together, and explaining mysterious elements of both stories. Here are a couple of excerpts, to give you a feel for Stead's writing:
"He hated the way she was talking, as if she were pushing her words through layers and layers of something--cloth, or fog, or mud." (Page 133, paperback edition)
"Thea's body reacted to the sound of her mother's name. It was as if a school of tiny fish swam inside of her, everywhere at once. She squeezed her hands into fists and then flexed her fingers, wishing she had thought to bring her ambergris." (Page 226) [Note, Thea squeezes a ball of ambergris when she is stressed - she seems to have a touch of obsessive compulsive disorder, though this is never stated.]
I am always on the lookout for quality science fiction (as an alternative to fantasy) for middle grade readers, and First Light fits the bill. Some of the inventions that allow Gracehope to exist are ingenious, as are the special gifts displayed by Peter and Thea. Stead also sneaks in a bit of real-world knowledge about Greenland, global warming, and sled dogs, without the book feeling heavy-handed. I think that First Light would pair well with Julie Bertagna's Exodus and Zenith (though First Light is aimed at a slightly younger age range).
One other aspect of the book that I enjoyed was the fact that Gracehope's society is strongly matrilineal. Kids aren't even supposed to know who their fathers (or "sires") are. Mating is heavily regulated, because the society is so small. This is all treated in a relatively matter-of-fact manner, and I think that middle school girls will find it interesting. First Light is quite boy-friendly, too, however, filled with exploration and danger.
All in all, I think that kids will find First Light a satisfying read. And I'll be looking forward to When You Reach Me (Rebecca Stead's next book, not a sequel).
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.