The Short Version: In the town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea, a young Lemony Snicket and his chaperone are trying to find a missing girl. She may’ve just run off to the circus – OR she may’ve been kidnapped to help the diabolic Hangfire with his nefarious experiments, a phrase here that means “attempts to create invisible ink”, among other dark deeds. Meanwhile, Snicket is trying to: keep tabs on his sister, understand the Bombinating Beast statue and its owner Ellington Feint, and learn exactly how to be a good detective.
The Review: Well, that escalated quickly.
The sometimes rocky first entry in the AtWQ series felt, at times, a little forced and a whole lot of artifice with a lack of much plot to drive it – beyond the MacGuffin of the Bombinating Beast statue. Only now, and with a single line in this book, we learn that it might not be such a MacGuffin after all. That and we now find that the first book was really more about setting up our main characters and giving us a sort of intro-adventure, in order to get used to them. Snicket spends very little time here reminding of of who’s who or what’s what – a fact I ordinarily bemoan when it comes to series that are drawn out over time (the drawbacks of being a voracious reader: sometimes series get shoved to the side or lost in a mental filing cabinet) but one that here doesn’t seem to bother me. Perhaps it’s because, as the best children’s authors manage to do quite a bit more frequently than their grownup counterparts, these characters are so simple and yet so unique that they cannot easily be forgotten. Moxie Mallahan, Pip & Squeak, Ellington, S. Theodora, even young Lemony himself – they’re all just so delightful.
But beyond the delightful cast Mr. Snicket has assembled in his deliciously dank and despondent setting (the town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea already looms large on my mental map of eerie places after only two books), we have a plot that practically sings. Snicket himself references, several times, how over-his-head he felt at that age with all of these things swirling around his brain – and he really does have a lot on his mind. The mystery of the missing girl scientist is the primary thrust of the plot but the discoveries come hot on each other’s heels in this book, revealing more details of the Inhumane Society and the villainous Hangfire without ever actually revealing anything too, well, revealing. Put another way, it’s not that Snicket is answering questions and wrapping things up – oh no, there are probably more questions now than there were before – but simply that there’s a confidence here that shows in how the reader interacts with the newly raised questions. The book ends with Snicket in just as much confusion as he began it in, but we’re right there alongside him now: we’re set and ready to figure this all out. The reader feels like one of Snicket’s trusted associates and that’s a lovely thing to feel.
The ending, speaking of (no SPOILERS, don’t worry), more firmly establishes the context of where this series fits into ASoUE – because, at times, you can forget that Snicket is only 13 in this book. He’s a smart and thoughtful young lad, though, and it’s clear that his strength inspires others. The team he’s put together in Stain’d-by-the-Sea believe in him, believe in the cause – and that’s enough to make (as he says in the book) not anything possible, but at least this thing.
My favorite thing about these books – about Snicket books in general – is that he doesn’t pull any punches for his target audience. It isn’t quite the same as a book like The Fault in Our Stars, written for a young audience but without any pretensions and thus feeling far more honest because of it. Instead, there are plenty of pretensions and “learning moments” (a phrase here that means “cleverly disguised ways of teaching readers young and old what a word or phrase means without really letting them know they’re being taught”) – but Snicket, like Green, doesn’t hide the fact that the world can be a confusing, frustrating, and even sometimes terrifying place. It’s important to remember, actually, that Snicket is 13 in these books – and then realize just how brave he truly is. The adults in this series (as with the series before) are almost entirely either clueless or villainous – and sometimes both. The kids are the ones with more shading, more nuance, more humanity – and what a thing for a young kid to read, you know? It might be subtle or subconscious even, but a kid who reads a Snicket book will come away with the sense that they aren’t “just a kid”. Some people might take umbrage at the darkness, saying we should be telling our kids its all happiness and sunshine and ponies.
But maybe that’s just because we want to keep these delightful books for ourselves.
Rating: 5 out of 5. Leaps and bounds of improvement upon the first book of the new series, thrusting the reader forward into the next adventure and building up a whirlwind of mystery and intrigue surrounding… well… pretty much everything, I guess. What’s going on with Kit? Why does everyone want that Bombinating Beast statue? Who IS Hangfire? Will that invisible ink ever work? I don’t know if these are the right questions or the wrong questions… but I can tell you one that I absolutely know to be a “right” question: how long do I have to wait for the next book?
BEA 2013 – I’ll try not to do this too often, but when I had a particularly unique experience at the BEA with a given author, I may drop a note about it, if you’ll allow it.
Mr. Snicket, being a secretive individual, wasn’t on hand but his official representative Daniel Handler was there signing copies of this latest AtWQ books on his behalf. I asked Mr. Handler to pass along to Mr. Snicket the message that Mr. Snicket’s dreadful books had made my childhood thoroughly despondent.
He replied that he was saddened to see that I had doubled down on a lifetime of bleak sadness by continuing to read Mr. Snicket’s books – and then he snatched my Field Notes Brand notebook from my shirt pocket, expressing delight at the fact that we share a love of those scrappy little repositories. He briefly read aloud to the assembled line an excerpt of my notes on the ethics panel I’d seen the day before. We were all terrified, even Mr. Handler, and he passed me the book back with a grin and a wink.