A review of The Penultimate Peril (Book the Twelfth) by Lemony Snicket

The plot is very good, taking unexpected turns in every chapter. The most appealing thing for me though, is that the main characters, despite their young age, are heroic, and manage some very difficult tasks, getting into some situations that no children should have to endure.

Reviewed by Dominic Ball

A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Penultimate Peril (Book the Twelfth)
By Lemony Snicket
ISBN: 0064410153
ARP: $19.95, October 2005

Lemony Snicket has promised that The Twelfth book will be his penultimate, and if you don’t know what penultimate means, you can relax, since Snicket defines the word, as he does all large words, in the book. It is also defined many times in a letter to the reader on the book’s back page, which captures Snicket’s unique style: “Next-to-last things are the first thing to be avoided, and so allow me to recommend that you put this next-to-last book down first, and find something else to read next to last, such as the next-to-last book in another chronicle, or a chronicle containing other next-to-last things, so that this next-to-last book does not become the last book you will read.” If you aren’t familiar with the Series of Unfortunate Events books, they follow three orphans, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, who have lost their parents in a terrible fire. In this latest book, they go to the strange Hotel Denoument where they are disguised as concierges (you’ll find out just what that is) to be flaneurs (also defined).

As the story unfolds, some strange things happen. In most books, there is a chapter where the author recounts the events in the bad guy’s life, so we know what’s happening, but in this book that doesn’t happen. The past is only hinted at (and if you’ve read other books in the series, you’ll know a little more, but never the whole story), and there is constant suspense. I like that the suspense comes out of mystery, and an attempt to uncover information which is mostly just another clue leading to more mystery. The reader remains as curious as the Baudelaire orphans, who never know more than we do.

This is an unusual book for a number of reasons. As I’ve mentioned, Snicket uses words that you probably won’t be familiar with, but as soon as he uses them, or a little later, he defines them for you:

Klaus had taken out his commonplace book and was taking notes on what Kit was saying. The opportunity to define a word, however, interrupted his research. “A concierge,” he said to his sister, “is someone who performs various tasks for guests in the hotel.” (39)

Another unusual thing that Snicket does is to use the “pick-a-path” technique for chapters four, five and six. These are different from the other chapters, and you can read them in any order. This is very exciting because it makes you feel as though you’re involved in the creation of the story, which is a little different depending on which chapter you read first. Finally, Snicket keeps telling you to stop reading, which is exactly the opposite of what most authors want you to do, and has the effect of making you want to read it all the more to see what he means.

Snicket’s characters are funny, and both realistic and unusual in the way they react and the things they say. My favourite character was Klaus because he loves to read (like me) and I like to think I’m a walking library like him (after reading this book, you might be too). Of course Count Olaf is the worst character because he’s the bad guy, and boy is he bad. He’s so bad you just have to see what he says and does next.

The plot is very good, taking unexpected turns in every chapter. The most appealing thing for me though, is that the main characters, despite their young age, are heroic, and manage some very difficult tasks, getting into situations that no children should have to endure. It’s easy to identify with them, and imagine how I might handle spying and working in a hotel or fighting off bad guys with only my siblings to help me (I‘m not sure my little brother and sister would cope as well as Violet and Sunny). There’s always something happening in this book, and Snicket never tells you the whole story, leaving the plot open, which will probably mean that you have to come back for the thirteenth book, no matter how hard Snicket tries to warn you off (Mum says it‘s just a clever ruse, and if you don‘t know what “ruse“ means, you‘ll have to read this book–your vocabulary will definitely expand). I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens, and if the Baudelaires will give in to the evil forces around them, or overcome their foes.

About the Reviewer: Dominic Ball is an eight year old compulsive reader whose mother keeps trying to get him to put down his books, go outside and play. He is also a pianist, composer, writer of extensive novels with detailed table of contents and varied paths (no endings), astronomer, Doctor Who fan, and good swimmer, but he’d always rather be reading.