This book review may come as a surprise to some. After all, I am a science fiction novelist who writes about vampires and orange aliens. So why read and review a beloved children’s book? Two reasons. First, I never read the series as a child because I was more into sports and video games. And second, I recently watched the incredible Netflix adaptation and fell madly in love with the premise. (Plus, Neil Patrick Harris is a national treasure.)
I was enticed to read the first book after watching the show, which did not detract from the experience in any way. In fact, the series is a highly faithful adaptation of the book, down to the quirky dialogue and Victorian steampunk vibe. Both mediums were engaging, engrossing, and delightfully absurd. I must also applaud an inspired casting choice: Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket is the very definition of perfect.
They main plot is deceptively simple. It follows three orphan children as they embark on, you guessed it, a series of unfortunate events. Their parents have died in a house fire and their lives tumble down the proverbial rabbit hole of misfortune and despair, exacerbated by a distant and nefarious relative, Count Olaf. The tale is narrated by Lemony Snicket, a sleuth-like character tasked with uncovering the details of their tragic story. He is fond of defining difficult words while offering anecdotal comparisons of the unfolding events, which end up being the highlights of the book.
At a baseline, this is a very morose premise for young readers. However, the constant influx of absurdity keeps the reader from descending into a full-blown depression. That, in essence, is the unending appeal of the series, which carries enough potent farce to maintain attention through 13 books.
What I found especially rewarding about this read was the full spectrum accessibility. At no point did I feel like I was reading beneath my level. In fact, the direct approach that the author takes reminded me of Isaac Asimov, who often noted that one of his primary goals in writing was to be clear and direct with his readers. No flowery language, no clunky exposition, just a concise narrative wrapped inside a distinct literary style. This is the exact approach that Daniel Handler (as Lemony Snicket) took when crafting these stories. Yes, a young child can clearly understand the plot, but the conveyed themes are intriguing to all ages.
Another benefit to reading the series as an adult is the length. Only one of the books tops 50K words, making them easy reads for a lazy afternoon. I read the first book (The Bad Beginning) in a single sitting at a coffee shop in downtown Toronto. I think I looked up twice, once to order another cup and another to giggle at the charming silliness. I struggle to remember the last time I enjoyed such lighthearted fun while reading. Which, of course, has me looking forward to the next dozen books.