Please note that this review may contain spoilers for earlier instalments of this series. You can read my review of these novels [here].
I am sorry to say, dear reader, that you have stumbled upon this blog at precisely the wrong time. While other internet reviewers may be currently looking at novels that focus on talking animals or handsome princes, it is my unhappy duty to delve further into Lemony Snicket’s chronicles pertaining to the multitude of misfortunes to befall the Baudelaire Orphans. This review is likely to contain coupons, pinstriped suits, parsley soda and (most tragically of all) no chance of a happy ending. If you would rather read a review about talking animals or handsome princes, you have come to the wrong place and I advise that you return to Google and search for a more pleasant blog. If you continue reading, I advise that you prepare yourself for the very worst as I analyse the next three instalments of A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to keep up that writing style for the rest of the review (sure is fun though). As you might have gleamed from the title, today I’m going to be looking at The Miserable Mill (2000), The Austere Academy (2000) and The Ersatz Elevator (2001). These are novels #4-6 of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. They were preceded by The Bad Beginning (1999), The Reptile Room (1999) and The Wide Window (2000) and followed by The Vile Village (2001), The Hostile Hospital (2001), The Carnivorous Carnival (2002), The Slippery Slope (2003), The Grim Grotto (2004), The Penultimate Peril (2005) and The End (2006).
The novels follow the continuing adventures of Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire as they are shunted between different guardians, all the while trying to avoid being captured by the evil Count Olaf. The children have inherited a vast fortune after their parents died in a fire (though can’t claim it until Violet turns eighteen). Olaf is intent on stealing their fortune and is prepared to kill anyone or adopt any disguise in order to do so.
In The Miserable Mill, the Baudelaires are placed in the care of Mister Sir, owner of the Lucky Smells Lumber Mill. Although they are forced to work long hours for a salary of coupons, they are relieved to discover that Olaf is nowhere in sight. However, something is still wrong. When Klaus breaks his glasses and is sent to a local optometrist, he comes back as a shadow of his former self. It is up to Violet and Sunny to discover what has happened and reverse it before they lose their brother forever.
Things get worse still as they are relocated to the Prufrock Preparatory School in The Austere Academy. Vice Principal Nero is entirely unsympathetic towards them, forcing them to live in a damp, crab-infested shack in the school grounds. It is not long before Olaf also appears, disguised as Coach Genghis the gym teacher. However, all Olaf seems to want them to do is run laps of the school field. Teaming up with the orphaned Quagmire triplets, Duncan and Isadora, they rush to uncover the true nature of his plan before it is too late.
The story continues in The Ersatz Elevator, as the Baudelaires are sent to live with Jerome and Esmé Squalor in their 71-bedroom penthouse apartment. Life here seems somewhat better, even if they are forced to conform to Esmé sense of style. Yet as Olaf appears in the guise of Gunther the auctioneer, they know that all cannot be as it seems. However, Olaf then disappears within the building seemingly without a trace. The orphans know that he must be lurking somewhere and their attention is soon drawn to the apartment’s disused elevator. They know they must find Olaf quickly and discover what he plans to do at the auction because this time the lives of the Quagmires could also be in peril.
As A Series of Unfortunate Events continues, Snicket does not fail to entertain with his dry wit and irresistibly gothic style – keeping the story light enough for young readers while slipping in the odd reference that will also appeal to teenagers and adults. The series does not lose any of its darkness over these three novels. Although offset by absurdity and asides that are often incredibly funny, it still touches on some pretty bleak themes that are usually avoided by middle grade literature. I think I’ve mentioned before that I do not really believe that children need to be wrapped in cotton wool. They’ve always been drawn to stories which have a mean streak in them (the ever popular Roald Dahl is evidence of this) and in this regard, A Series of Unfortunate Events delivers.
When Snicket warns that his story is depressing and filled with terrible things, he does not lie. No one would ever wish they were in the same position as the Baudelaires. The nice people that they meet are often murdered or kidnapped and the rest just treat them appallingly. Yet this just makes them far easier to like. Privileged characters often feel tiresome in literature because we have no reason to empathise with them. They get everything handed to them on a platter and yet still seem to find something to complain about. The Baudelaires struggle but never lose hope. They face things that no child should ever have to face and yet they draw strength from each other. Because of this, they are thoroughly likable.
The characters that the Baudelaires meet in their adventures are still all vibrant and memorable. Although none are quite as loveable as Uncle Monty or fantastically flawed as Aunt Josephine, they still have a wide array of character quirks that make them utterly unique. From Mister Sir’s unpronounceable name and face that is always hidden in smoke to Esmé’s obsession with remaining fashionable (throwing out belongings in an instant if they cease to be ‘in’), the characters are somewhat shallow but are still an awful lot of fun.
Count Olaf is also still hilarious, although I am beginning think that he is a bit of a one-trick-horse. In fact, this is a bit of general problem with the novels as they do read a bit like a game of mad libs. Every book the orphans are sent to live with __________ in a ____________. Here they are subjected to horrible things until Olaf appears disguised as _____________. It is a little disappointing that the novels have not yet managed to move away from this as it causes the series to fill a bit like its falling into a rut. Beneath its charming text, timeless situations and entertaining cast, they are all essentially the same story. I do hope that Snicket manages to spice things up in The Vile Village as I’m worried that these books are soon going to start to lose their shine.
However, it is clear that there is a deeper story at work. From The Miserable Mill onwards, small hints have been dropped as to a larger conspiracy. Olaf’s eye tattoo has begun to show up in random places, the Quagmire triplets have a back-story that will seem very familiar to the reader and the initials V.F.D have proven to be significant to the Baudelaire’s situation (although they have yet to discover why). Even Snicket’s asides about Beatrice have begun to tie into the plot as they seem to be connected to Olaf in some way. Because of these things, I think that The Ersatz Elevator has been my favourite of the stories to date. It is nicely paced and raises a lot of questions that I can’t wait to uncover the answers for, as well as building to a very good twist ending. Although it is still a little too similar to the stories that came before it, I still felt that it was an intriguing novel and it certainly left me dying for more.
Sorry, I’m starting to drone on a bit so I should probably wrap it up. The Miserable Mill, The Austere Academy and The Ersatz Elevator are all very entertaining reads, further showcasing how talented Lemony Snicket is as an author. They are filled with wonderfully surreal scenarios and brilliantly original characters, while at the same time covering some very dark themes. While they do start to hint towards a larger conspiracy, my only real disappointment was that the stories have not evolved in any way and still follow the same structure as the previous three instalments. I hope that Snicket does break this formula in the next novel as the stories are starting to become a little predictable and I would hate for them to start to feel boring.
The Miserable Mill can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk
The Austere Academy can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk
The Ersatz Elevator can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk