If Harry Potter had never become the pop world-changing phenomenon we’re all familiar with, then it’s possible A Series of Unfortunate Events might have been remembered as the best children’s chapter books to come out of the last two decades. Arguably, A Series of Unfortunate Events is better written than Potter, and certainly contains a sense of irony a lot of fanciful children’s narratives usually lack. If you’re a reader who likes secret societies, mysterious submarines, underwater libraries, doppelgangers, and nefarious villains with literary names, then the Lemony Snicket books are most certainly for you.
But who is this Lemony Snicket guy? Well, he’s a fictional character within the narrative of A Series of Unfortunate Events, but also the nom de plume for a real-life writer named Daniel Handler. And in and out of his Snicket guise, Handler has served up some of the most fantastic fantastical fiction in contemporary literature.
If you haven’t read A Series of Unfortunate Events I suggest you stop whatever you’re doing now, run to the local library or bookstore and gobble them up. I know it’s a thirteen-book commitment, (fifteen if you count The Beatrice Letters and The Unauthorized Autobiography) but I’ve never read a series more rewarding, nor one which made me feel like there was a beautiful secret that I, the reader, was being let in on. The premise of the series is simple enough: three orphans are on the run from the evil Count Olaf who is hell-bent on stealing their fortune. These books may as well take place in an alternate steampunky universe insofar as none of the locales are remotely real, nor is the level of technology consistent with any one historical era.
When you’ve got a character named Esme Squalor who stomps around on stiletto high-heels featuring actual stiletto daggers, you’re dealing with a series that is bona fide fantasy. It’s not wizard and spell fantasy, but more like an engrossing world building fantasy, slightly closer to The Golden Compass than Potter, and less earnest than both. One of the best reoccurring motifs of the series is Snicket/Handler’s insistence on inverting traditional “happy” or “moralistic” children’s stories into something a little greyer. I think this is best exemplified in the Stephin Merritt song “This Abyss” which paraphrases sentiments from the sixth book The Ersatz Elevator. With a sense of slightly macabre adventure, Merritt sings: Even in your bedroom shadows/there is something moving. (Merritt and Handler collaborated on a song for every single one of the Snicket books, with the song being released on the various Series of Unfortunate Events audio books as well as a compellation album released after the 13th book was published.)
This notion that an adventure story doesn’t always end happy is obviously spelled out in the title of the series itself, but the way Handler plays with this is deft and original. In the 12th book, The Penultimate Peril the Baudelaire orphans cause a massive fire which ends up killing many characters who protected the kids in the previous stories. The guilt these characters have to deal with is shocking, and certainly not sugar coated in any kind of “they had to do it” sort of way. In the Snicket/Handler world, death hangs over the heads of characters like a thick fog that never quite goes away. I know some might say the Potter books are ultimately about death; but the Baudelaire orphans receive no comforting Obi-Wan Kenobi style chats with their departed parents or friends. And this isn’t because there aren’t enough fanciful devices in their fictional universe to facilitate something like that, it’s because Handler wants you to really feel uncomfortable about their pain.
But fantasy worlds in which characters experience a lot of serious emotions aren’t limited to Handler’s Snicket books. He does it wonderfully with the 2006’s Adverbs; a book released under his own name and marketed straightforwardly as a novel. It certainly shares the snarky and dark sensibilities of Handler’s other work, but possesses a structure that is more similar to the interconnected stories of Jennifer Egan’s 2010 novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad. Multiple characters inhabit various vignettes in Adverbs, all which seem to take place in a slightly dystopic universe. The notion of both past and impending catastrophes is strewn throughout the various vignettes. Some seem to suggest that a volcano will eventually rise in the middle of California. In one specific section, a character is revealed to possess magical powers and actually is The Snow Queen of a fairly tale fame.
Calling Adverbs surreal isn’t exactly fair because even though some characters later appear to be dreams of different characters, the book isn’t intentionally trying to confuse you. Instead, its premise is fairly transparent: a series of stories, which each premise is based on a specific adverb. The book certainly accomplishes this, but the side effect of the exercise is a pseudo-shared universe of characters and notions, which do in the end, resemble a novel. This isn’t as tightly connected as a linked-stories novel like Goon Squad, nor is it as linear and clear as A Series of Unfortunate Events, but that’s not necessarily Handler’s goal here. Instead, he’s making fun of language and turning our feelings about language into characters and fantastical plots. For Handler, words are characters too and sometimes characters are just words.
On top of all of these smarty-pants literary acrobatics, Handler in any form is highly readable. Though his earliest novel, The Basic Eight is far from perfect, it still possesses the same sharp wit and eye towards immersing the reader in a universe that might be just slightly to the one side of reality. If you’ve yet to pick up anything by Handler, there’s a lot to choose from, and with any luck, even more in the future.
(He claimed his next book would be about pirates at some point, but it looks like it’s a YA novel called Why We Broke Up, which will be his second collaboration with the fantastic artist Maria Kalman.)
(Art of Violet sliding down the stairs from A Series of Unfortunate Events copyright of Brett Helquist.)
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.