The podcast version of this review can be found here.
This series-starter opens with a brother and sister pair of dressed rabbits playing together in the field by their family home. Their friendship is evident, and reading about it invites us into a bigger story of family, friendship, and things worth fighting for. When tragedy strikes a few pages later, these two rabbits must flee, and all that they can take with them is each other. Confused and terrified, they are running away from a pack of evil wolves, and they have no idea where to go. As they run, they are unknowingly pursued by friends as well as foes. When their friends reach and rescue them, they are taken to not only a place of safety but a whole new way of life and a whole new family.
This exciting and poignant story is more Mistmantle or Narnia than Watership Down.
Before our story begins, the rabbit king of Natalia, King Jupiter Goodson, has been betrayed and killed by a consortium of wolves, birds of prey, and traitorous rabbits. At the invitation of a small group of traitorous rabbits, Morbin Blackhawk, leader of the Lords of Prey, combined forces with King Farlock and his pack of wolves to kill King Jupiter, and to also devour, enslave, and torture all of rabbit-kind.
“In the old tradition, a king made his succession clear by passing the [Green Ember] to his heir. The prince kept it as a down payment of his future inheritance and a sacred stewardship to guard while he awaited the day of his own rule. So if the crown of flames falls… the Green Ember rises.”The Blackstar of Kingston, p. 84.
At his death, King Jupiter left behind an uncle who had always wanted the throne, a brother who was willing to betray him for the throne, and a young son to whom he had bestowed the Green Ember. In the time since the fall of King Jupiter, the lords and captains of Natalia have kept the Green Ember (the prince) hidden and safe while they worked to unite the warrens and citadels, and prepare for war with Morbin and his allies.
When Uncle Wilfred and Smalls rescue Heather and Picket from the wolf attack, they lead them to a hidden retreat called Cloud Mountain. It is here that the brother and sister learn the awful history of their family, the tragic history of their people, and make the decision to take their place in the battle against the evil that is mounting against rabbit-kind.
Part of what makes this story special is that Sam wants to invite us into the hardness of the cause without marring our hope. In an effort to help us understand what the rabbits are preparing to fight for, he brings these rabbits to the one retreat that is unlike all the other citadels and warrens. This place is special and designed to preserve and protect that which is good, true, and beautiful about the rabbit way of life. This is a place of refreshment, but it is also a place of healing and holy inspiration. The wood of Natalia has been wrecked and nearly ruined, and they are fighting to mend it.
“…there’s another kind of mending that must be done. This place is full of farmers, artists, smiths, weavers – workers of all kinds . . . this is a place dedicated to the reasons why some must fight. Here we anticipate the Mended Wood, the Great Wood healed . . . 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 . . . and we prepare with all our might, to be ready when once again we are free.”The Green Ember, Chapter 25
One of the things that appeals to me about these books is that the relationships between the characters are very human and relatable. Heather and Picket love each other as siblings do, but they also have disagreements and get frustrated with each other.
“Picket couldn’t really explain, even to himself, why he resented Smalls. Part of him was ashamed of the way he was acting, but he just couldn’t stop. It felt so very right to be angry, and there was Smalls, just asking for it.”The Green Ember, Chapter 16
Picket spends a good portion of the book hating Smalls. He is angry about the loss of his parents and baby brother, he is angry about the wolves and his family history, and he is angry about an injury he sustained in his flight. This young rabbit who rescues him is stronger than he is, more mature than he is, and much more capable. Smalls, who has never done anything to deserve Picket’s ire, takes all of Picket’s anger without complaint, and that just makes Picket hate him more. Picket needs a vent for his anger, and Smalls is the nearest target. This is human. This is something most of us can probably relate to. And Sam doesn’t let it stay that way. He uses that and transforms it into something profound. By the end of the book, there will be few whom Smalls will trust more than Picket, and hardly anyone that Picket will love more than Smalls.
“How many times in the last two days had she believed she was at the end of her strength, only to somehow find more?”Chapter 17
When Heather and Picket arrive at Cloud Mountain, we are treated to some delightful chapters on the beauty of the culture, the richness of the history of Natalia, and the well-developed backstories of many characters who will be essential to the series overall. But, the peace is quickly attacked. A traitor lets the enemy into the retreat as a distraction while springing a brutal trap for a key character elsewhere. Heather and Picket spring into action and do what is needed. They dig deep into their souls and find a strength they did know that they had, and a courage they never knew they would need. They rise to the occasion, and they become heroes. The second half of the story is incredibly exciting, a lot of fun to read, and full of goodness for our moral imagination.
I have read this particular story five or more times, and my children spent two years falling asleep to it every night. I could not have sent them into dreamland with better companions.
Readers of this story sometimes come back to me and tell me they didn’t love the first half of the story. Some give up on it partway through. I do understand that complaint. While I enjoyed the story, I did think that the second half was richer and more compelling than the first half. I mention that only because I think it is important that readers know that this book and The Blackstar of Kingston sometimes have mixed reviews. However, the rest of the series is beloved by so many for good reason! Like we see with so many beloved authors, first offerings are often sweet for their own reasons, but are not the pinnacle of the author’s writing. As each subsequent book was released, I felt like the stories got better, the writing itself was more confident and compelling, and the characters became more endearing. I am a particular fan of the Jo Shanks books, which are some of the later offerings. And, Prince Lander and the Dragon War, may be my favorite of them all.
I am deeply grateful for Sam’s stories. I have truly enjoyed the world of Natalia, and love how it has inspired and nourished my children. I cannot recommend these books more passionately.
You can learn more about S. D. Smith and find more of our reviews of his books here. You can purchase this book directly from Sam’s store, Story Warren, here or from Amazon, here. You can learn more about the book at Biblioguides, here. Sara has done some Green Ember bookclubs, you can find more here.