In elementary school, I had three favorite series of books: Harry Potter, of course, which my mom starting reading out loud to us kids when I was six; The Lord of the Rings, which my sister and I read together when I was in fourth grade; and The Series of Unfortunate Events.
Okay, I know that Lemony Snicket’s Unfortunate Events is supposed to be a children’s series. And it is. It has a great habit of defining words in interesting ways, like “Smirked, a word which here means ‘smiled in an unfriendly, phony way'” which makes it extremely readable for younger kids. But I also read through the series my Senior year of high school, and they were still incredibly interesting. That time, I found myself laughing at the many allusions made throughout the series, not the least of which is the fact that every book is dedicated to a woman named Beatrice (like Dante’s Beatrice) in ways like “To Beatrice: We are like two ships passing in the night. Particularly you.”
There’s a man called Ishmael who has feet encased in clay. There’s a Nevermore tree surrounded by ravens. There’s a poem from Alice in Wonderland as one of the clues. The point is, even if you’re an older reader there’s no reason for you to dismiss this work of children’s literature.
And, if you remember liking these books, you probably remember the interesting narration. The author himself, Lemony Snicket, was a character in the series, and there were frequent passages which referred to the author’s many troubles in his own life. In my opinion, Unfortunate Events has one of the best, most unique narrative voices in literature.
The next most unique belongs to the little-known Bartimaeus Sequence by Jonathan Stroud which is narrated in part by a demon called Bartimaeus.
Bartimaeus’s Bad Beginning
The first (and best) book of the trilogy is The Amulet of Samarkand, and set up the scene: a slightly different London, where Magicians run the show. Nathaniel, our child protagonist, is an apprentice to a cruel Magician and decides to seek revenge on him by summoning Bartimaeus, a 5,000 djinni. This is a world where Magicians are part talent but mostly skill and schoolwork, and Nathaniel believes himself to be the brightest of his age.
This is a book for middle-aged readers–fifth, sixth, seventh grades–but there’s so much packed in that it’s an enjoyable fantasy even if you’re older. It creates an interesting, believable world and then put in secrets and rebellion and murder. But the whole book is grounded by the old, sarcastic Bartimaeus, who narrates half the book, and Nathanial, who does the other half.
The best part of this book–this series, if you want to read more about the world–is how the relationship between master and djinni changes. Bartimaeus is no Genie summoned by Aladdin, laughing and happy. In his long lifetime, he had one good master, the Egyptian mathematician and scientist Ptolemy. Since that post, he’s vowed never to get close to any of his masters again.
It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s a David-versus-Goliath impossible scenario where you can’t help but room for the underdogs. There’s magic and demons and different planes of existence. It’s a foray into high fantasy for young readers.
Tying It All Together
What can fantasy have to do with Unfortunate Events, which defies genre? It all goes back to the narrative style of the book. Lemony Snicket, and the other Snicket siblings, pop up throughout the Events series, and the sarcasm and wit lent to both narration and dialogue makes all the books accessible to old and young readers alike.
What Bartimaeus offers is that little narrative gimick of the footnote, used so effectively here, mostly for humor, that you’ll find yourself reading it again and again, laughing out loud every time. The story itself has a dark mystery at the center, but the character of Bartimaeus is snarky and irreverent, defying all the rules of his species. One of the footnotes early on is: ” 3 One magician demanded I show him an image of the love of his life. I rustled up a mirror.” He refuses to play nice or even fair, but the 5,000 year old creature grows just as much as teenager Nathaniel by the end of the book.
The best part about both of these series is that they are series, and if you find yourself enjoying one you will enjoy the rest. Both are an acquired taste, with much tongue-in-cheek humor, but if you find yourself liking them you will have a set of books you will be re-reading for the rest for your life.