Perhaps it is fitting that Lemony Snicket will forever languish in the shadow of J.K. Rowling and her wildly successful Harry Potter novels, as Snicket’s nearly-as-successful “Series of Unfortunate Events” books are written with such a dour (a word which here means “incredibly sad and depressing”) tone that one can hardly imagine the author being particularly thrilled at being the #1 bestselling author of books for young adults. Which is a shame, because, with all due respect to Ms. Rowling, the continuing adventures of the Baudelaire orphans (inventive Violet, bookish Klaus, and baby Sunny), which Snicket so painstakingly chronicles in, so far, eleven novels, are inarguably some of the best recent books for pre-teens. Of course, older teens and adults like myself can take equal pleasure from the ever-more-imaginative plots and the clever wordplay.
The Grim Grotto picks up the pace of the series significantly and, though it is the longest book so far, moves incredibly quickly, even when read aloud (as many parents are likely to do with their younger children). Grotto picks up just where the tenth book left off, with the Baudelaires trapped in aggressive rapids on a small, crumbling toboggan. The “theme” of this book, if you can call it that, is water, primarily because nearly the entire story takes place underwater. Indeed, Snicket tries to distract less clever readers with frequent digressions into the three stages of the water cycle (precipitation, collection, and evaporation), though he does so only to lull them into a catatonic (a word which here means, “bored and tired enough that they will not keep reading of the Baudelaires’ continuing misfortunes”) state. But diligent readers who make it past these distractions are well rewarded.
As with the previous books, Grotto builds significantly on all that has come before, though Snicket does a good enough job reminding us of key plot points that readers like myself, who have missed a few of the volumes along the way, will not be entirely lost. Old villains return, of course, along with at least one old friend, but the real treat here is the introduction of several new characters, chiefly Captain Widdershins, captain of the submarine Queequeg and his mycologist daughter, Fiona. Widdershins is a boisterous fellow who can’t help but interject an explosive “Aye!” at the end of every statement he makes. He lives by his personal philosophy (“He who hesitates is lost”), which seems to be helpful only about half of the time. Fiona, a young girl about Klaus’s age, is one of the only two members of Widdershins’s crew, and proves to be a valuable ally to the Baudelaires, at first.
Snicket (who is actually writer Daniel Handler) manages to ratchet up the stakes yet again with The Grim Grotto, which finds our heroes in more than a few difficult, and often nearly deadly, predicaments. With only two more books remaining of the proposed thirteen, its hard to see how all of the loose plot strands are going to be resolved in time. The author has shown a knack for keeping a long-running story fresh and interesting, but he has yet to prove he can actually resolve all of the many events he’s so far set into motion. Whether he can or cannot is immaterial, as hordes or devoted readers will be along for the ride either way.