The Short Version: Despite foiling Hangfire’s most recent plot, young Lemony Snicket is still asking all the wrong questions. Can he trust Ellington Feint? Why do they have to wear these masks when the bell rings? Are matches really evil? Shouldn’t you be in school?
The Review: Whoa. Well, I have to say, I wasn’t terribly well prepared for this installment of the All the Wrong Questions quartet to move us forward so much. This book is, in a lot of ways, almost all action – and quite a bit of connective tissue, too (to the A Series of Unfortunate Events books). I’d almost like to go back at some point to attempt to spot all of the many references to the future series that Snicket sprinkles into the narrative, but perhaps some other time.
The cover (with its burning match, burning background, and orange coloring) ought to be a clue that this book deals with quite a bit of fire – and those with even a passing familiarity to the Snicketverse should know how that connects to VFD. Indeed, our author gives us several forthright and open admissions about VFD that feel almost startling, compared to how shady and unclear he’s been up to this point. But when young Lemony finally opens up to his associates in Stain’d-by-the-Sea, the reader gets the sense that author-Lemony is finally opening up to us, too. It gives the entire adventure an even greater sense of propulsion: we are now caught up in this mystery, regardless of what it is, and knowledge can be power.
But Snicket also plays with, in a deeply meta way, with the concept of revelations. Young Snicket’s ploy to foil Hangfire in this novel relies on, as several people point out several times, nobody knowing the entirety of the plot but instead simply their own parts in the larger scheme of things. It is only Snicket who knows all of the pieces – a dangerous thing, as if he is compromised, so too goes the whole she-bang. But there is a sense, perhaps never greater than it was in this book, that author-Snicket also knows the whole scheme. And while the travails of the VFD may remain shrouded to some extent, readers will (after this novel, anyway) feel better in the understanding that at least someone knows what’s what.
More than the gripping (and sometimes almost scary, let alone violent) adventure of this novel, though, I found that Snicket is addressing some psychologically scary issues – issues that are scary for adults sometimes, let alone for children. A scene about halfway, maybe 2/3rds of the way through the novel where Snicket confronts his terrible mentor, S. Theodora Markson, and she must acknowledge where she has failed as his teacher… it’s really powerful stuff. Snicket is, after all, barely 13 in this story. To step up like he does takes a lot of courage and I hope that young readers find it inspiring. Similarly, the way he grapples with his feelings toward Ellington (not to mention the subtle hints of a faint triangle with Moxie) is really nuanced and far more than anyone could/should expect from a YA novel.
Rating: 5 out of 5. The only drawback of this novel is that it is very much a middle installment. While the adventure itself is self-contained (mystery of the fires / eventual resolution), there is the never-more-apparent sense that big things are coming and the next & final installment of the quartet will bring them to pass. But Snicket doesn’t give up on allowing quiet moments here and there, thinking about the greater (and stranger) mysteries of the world he’s created. The images of Stain’d-by-the-Sea have never been clearer and while there’s certainly a fair amount of affect to the characters, they’re all living and breathing people. There is a quality of craft here that belies the series’ spot on store shelves; adults will be just as entertained as their children.