Review: Murder in the Vatican, the Church Mysteries of Sherlock Homes

Reviewing Murder in the Vatican requires a bit of backstory. When I was 13, I started reading through the collected stories of Sherlock Holmes. I made it about halfway through. stopped dead by “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott”—the first time Holmes was the narrator.  Even G.K. Chesterton noted that it showed why Watson was relevant: because Holmes was a terrible storyteller.

Since then, I have been critical of anything about Sherlock Holmes written after the death of Arthur Conan Doyle.
When Robert Downey Jr. starred in Sherlock Holmes, I crossed my fingers and hoped it didn’t suck … instead, I got a checklist of what they did right.

When they created Sherlock, I also crossed my fingers. It was surprisingly awesome.

Then I heard about Murder in the Vatican: The Church Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes. It had an interesting premise: author Ann Margaret Lewis takes Watson’s offhand references of Holmes working on cases for the Pope, or involving religious figures, and turns them into entire stories.

I experienced the same feeling of dread. How off would the narration be? Would someone try converting Holmes? How lost would a detective from Victorian, Anglican England be in Catholic Rome? How many different ways were there to screw this up?

I stopped worrying when I read the first sentence. And, oh my God, this book is awesome! I loved this book…

Lewis caught the voice of Dr. John Watson as though she had taken it, trapped in a bottle, and used it to refill her pen into as she wrote. I liked the voice. I liked Watson, the doctor, trying to diagnose an ailing Leo XIII (85 at the time of the events of the first story). I like the brief sketch of the political situation between the Vatican and Italy. I even enjoy Watson’s discomfort at the Pope slipping into “The Royal We” when he speaks of himself as the Pope.

Even the artwork was as though it had been lifted from issues of The Strand magazine. Someone had fun here.

Thankfully, there is no overt attempt to convert Holmes, evangelize or proselytize him. There is only enough theology in the entire novel that explains to the casual reader exactly what the heck the Pope is doing. The closest the book comes to exposing Holmes to theology is a page-long sequence that ends with Leo saying, “Perhaps you should spend some of your inactive time pondering that conundrum [of Jesus] instead of indulging in whatever narcotic it is with which you choose to entertain yourself.”

That is the best zinger I’ve ever seen a character use on Holmes regarding his drug use. Even the most secular person I know can appreciate a page of theology for one of the better one-liners I’ve ever seen.

Also, the little things were entertaining for a nerd like me. For example, the casual mention of John Cardinal Newman, referred to as “a recent convert.” The political situation at the time is given just enough of a sketch to explain what’s going on, but nothing obtrusive; history nerds like me can be satisfied, but you don’t have to have a degree in it to comprehend what’s going on.

There are truly parts where the novel seems to merge all the best qualities of Sherlock Holmes with those of G.K. Chesterton’s Fr. Brown short stories …

At this point, I must make a small confession. I write reviews as I read the book. There is plenty of backtracking, filling the blanks, and rewrite the review as the book goes. I wrote the Father Brown line when I finished the first tale. In fact, the interview questions I sent to Ann Margaret Lewis were written before I even received a review copy of the book.

I then read “The Vatican Cameos,” and discover a Deacon, named Brown …

I swear I didn’t see that coming.


The first story in this collection is “The Death of Cardinal Tosca.”

In this memorable year ’95 a curious and incongruous succession of cases had engaged his attention, ranging from his famous investigation of the sudden death of Cardinal Tosca — an inquiry which was carried out by him at the express desire of His Holiness the Pope . . . .

—Dr. John H. Watson, “The Adventure of Black Peter”

Imagine Sherlock Holmes on vacation … if you see that vacation turning out like an episode of Murder, She Wrote, with a body hitting the floor at some point, you pretty much have the setup. It has a poison pen letter, with real poison, some Masons, references to two different cases in the space of two paragraphs, and a Papal commando raid with a real pontiff. This story is so delightfully odd and over-the-top, but still preserves as much reality as any other Holmes tale. I enjoyed every moment of it. And I can’t argue with any story where the pope gets most of the amusing one-liners.

Heck, even the murderer gets in a good line. When confronted, our first killer sneers. “Let me guess. You’re going to explain, to the amazement of your friends, how I did the deed?” Holmes replies, “I’ve already told them that. It would be old news. They already know you blundered badly.”

I think the story concludes on a nice, solid note. As Holmes tells Watson, “[Leo XIII] is genuinely pious. He is also imperious, but in a most endearing way.”

Watson merely replies, “Yes, well. I’m used to that.”

Let’s see Martin Freeman deliver that line.


“I was exceedingly preoccupied by that little affair of the Vatican cameos, and in my anxiety to oblige the Pope I lost touch with several interesting English cases.”

—Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles

The second tale, “The Vatican Cameos,” is a bit of a flashback episode to when Holmes first met Pope Leo XIII. A collection of cameos is sent to Queen Victoria, secured tightly in the box, but upon their arrival in London, the box is empty. The Queen simply sends Sherlock Holmes. Watson is busy with a medical emergency, so he wasn’t around.

When Watson asks Sherlock about the incident, Holmes says, quite clearly “Watson, I am incapable of spinning a tale in the way you do. The narrative would read like a scientific treatise.” Thus, there is only one person left who to narrate this tale … Leo XIII. This was the story that truly showed that the author did her research, assembling little details of Leo XIII’s interests and hobbies and putting them together into a rich, vibrant character. He is shown here as witty, humorous, and bright.

The byplay between Leo XIII and Holmes in this story was marvelously entertaining. The Pope is shown to be about as smart as Watson … maybe a little smarter. When Holmes first meets the Pontiff, and rattles off conclusions in his usual rapid-fire manner, the Pope takes a minute, and deduces how Holmes came to most of them. Not all, but most. Making Leo this smart only serves to make Holmes as impressive as he should be—yes, everyone else may be smart, but Holmes is smarter.

Also, having Leo XIII using Thomas Aquinas to talk with Holmes of reason and science … it works for me.

And the scene with Holmes, the Pope, and the gunman was fun, too.


“You know that I am preoccupied with this case of the two Coptic Patriarchs, which should come to a head to-day.”

Sherlock Holmes, “The Retired Colourman”

“The Second Coptic Patriarch”: The third and final tale is from yet another throwaway line of Arthur Conan Doyle’s.

In this case, a former criminal comes to Holmes to solicit his services; the priest who converted him away from his life of crime is in jail for murder. A bookstore owner has been murdered with a book (“The Rule of Oliver Cromwell–weighty subject, no doubt,” Holmes quips), and the priest will only say that the victim was dead when he arrived.

It’s almost Sherlock Holmes meets Alfred Hitchcock … I didn’t know someone could do I Confess like this. It’s a fun little read, and possibly the most traditional of the Holmes stories — it’s a good tale. From the perspective of the overall book, it’s a perfect cap to the character arc.

Now, after reading Murder in the Vatican, I think I’m going to go back and finish the Sherlock Holmes series — and keep Murder in the Vatican handy, so I can read them all in chronological order.

Ann Lewis said that the book was “meant to be fun and lift your heart for a short time. I had a blast writing it, and I hope you have a blast reading it.”

Mission accomplished.

Frankly, between Cumberbatch, RDJ, or Elementary, if you had to live with only one expansion of Holmes works, you buy Ann Lewis. Period.

Declan Finn is a Dragon Award nominated author. His “Catholic Vampire romance novels” can be found on his personal website. As well as all the other strange things he does.

Tom Stranger: International Insurance Agent

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Welcome to Larry Correia’s audio book, The Adventures of Tom Stranger, Interdimensional Insurance AgentThe Adventures of Tom Stranger: Interdimensional Insurance Agent, narrated by Adam Baldwin.

Yes. Really. I’m not making this one up.

Have you ever seen a planet invaded by rampaging space mutants from another dimension or Nazi dinosaurs from the future?

Don’t let this happen to you!

 

Rifts happen, so you should be ready when universes collide. A policy with Stranger & Stranger can cover all of your interdimensional insurance needs. Rated “Number One in Customer Satisfaction” for three years running, no claim is too big or too weird for Tom Stranger to handle.

 

But now Tom faces his greatest challenge yet. Despite being assigned the wrong – and woefully inadequate – intern, Tom must still provide quality customer service to multiple alternate Earths, all while battling tentacle monsters, legions of the damned, an evil call center in Nebraska, and his archnemesis, Jeff Conundrum. Armed with his Combat Wombat and a sense of fair play, can Tom survive? And will Jimmy the Intern ever discover his inner insurance agent?

 

It’s time to kick ass and adjust claims.

Adam Baldwin (Firefly, Chuck) performs Larry Correia’s madcap interdimensional tale of underwriting and space travel, where the only thing scarier than tentacle monsters is a high deductible.


My first response? “Oh good God, what the sweet heck is this?”

But it’s by Larry, and it was free at the time, and I am both cheap and a fan of Correia’s, so why not?

I decided to play it while on a trip into Manhattan.

Happily, I didn’t crash the car.

Chapter 1: “Tom’s 9am meeting,” takes place in a dimension in which the star of the five-season libertarian space cowboy show (and three blockbuster movies) has become President Adam Baldwin. SecDef is R. Lee Ermey. They are being invaded by the attack of the flying purple people eaters on meth, steroids and rocket fuel. But, thankfully, they have coverage with Stranger and Stranger.

Also, Adam Baldwin does a great Ermey impersonation.

Chapter 2: “The Mediation”

The mediator is Chuck Norris. The awesome is hilarious, as is Baldwin’s impersonation of Norris. Just bask in the awesome.

Chapter 3: “Hell Comes to Nebraska”

This might be the best bit of the book. Not only because it blows up an SF convention, but because it stars Larry Correia and Wendell the Manatee as CFO of CorreiaTech, creator of the Combat Wombat. There are also legions of Hell invading Nebraska.

Then there’s the Balrog…

Yes.

Chapter 4: The book gets a plot!

Just when you thought that this was just a string of vignettes from a day in the life of Tom Stranger, surprise, we have a plot.

For the record, we also make fun of Kung Fu Panda.

I won’t continue with the chapter breakdown, because spoilers would happen, but the short version is that this is off the wall insane and hilarious. Granted, a lot of the humor is of the off the wall variety, but it was hilarious.

However, if you dislike having your sacred cows made into hamburger, you might have some problems. Here, Larry takes shots at Obama (Adam Baldwin does a terrifyingly good Obama), Joe Biden (or “the alcoholic clown”) call centers, squishy degrees, and even nerds to some degree, because Larry’s been to conventions where not all nerds are interesting.

But, yeah, this was a wonderful ball of strange … no pun intended.  Much.

For the record: Tom Stranger will return.

Declan Finn is a Dragon Award nominated author. His “Catholic Vampire romance novels” can be found on his personal website. As well as all the other strange things he does.

Review of Monster Hunter Memoirs: Grunge

What happens when you bring together one of the best SF&F writers into one of the best fantasy worlds in books today? Grunge.

At LibertyCon, John Ringo mentioned that he had been reading Monster Hunter International because it’s not the sort of thing he would write, so he wouldn’t be stealing anything from it by accident.
Instead, Ringo ended up writing three books for the world Larry Correia invented.
The premise behind this one is … interesting.

 

When Marine Private Oliver Chadwick Gardenier is killed in the Marine barrack bombing in Beirut, somebody who might be Saint Peter gives him a choice: Go to Heaven, which while nice might be a little boring, or return to Earth. The Boss has a mission for him and he’s to look for a sign. He’s a Marine: He’ll choose the mission.

 

Unfortunately, the sign he’s to look for is “57.” Which, given the food services contract in Bethesda Hospital, creates some difficulty. Eventually, it appears that God’s will is for Chad to join a group called “Monster Hunters International” and protect people from things that go bump in the night. From there, things trend downhill.

 

Monster Hunter Memoirs is the (mostly) true story of the life and times of one of MHI’s most effective—and flamboyant—hunters. Pro-tips for up and coming hunters range from how to dress appropriately for jogging (low-profile body armor and multiple weapons) to how to develop contacts among the Japanese yakuza, to why it’s not a good idea to make billy goat jokes to trolls.

 

Grunge harkens back to the Golden Days of Monster Hunting when Reagan was in office, Ray and Susan Shackleford were top hunters and Seattle sushi was authentic.

Monster Hunter Memoirs: Grunge has everything that I’ve come to expect from Ringo: a smart character (in this case, super-genius) taking over-the-top situations, and responding to them very pragmatically. Swarm of zombies? Shoot them in the head. And shoot faster. Have a dream about a mission from God? Well, it could be a dream, or it could be a vision. We’ll see.

Also, “57.” And “do the whole village!”

Heh. You’ll have to read the book to get that one.

One of nice bits of business I liked was the interaction with Agent Franks, where one is fairly certain that our hero was given access codes to a secret handshake between himself and a creature like Franks.

However, if you’re reading this work looking for the John Ringo of Ghost … don’t. First, I never thought the first novel was representative of his work (even representative of the rest of that series). Second, Grunge feels a little bit more like my personal favorite of Ringo’s series: Special Circumstances. And I swear that Ringo immersed himself in Japanese culture and has come back to his Catholic roots — there’s a lot of both in there.

Ringo also brings in politics to the realities of monster hunting. While Larry Correia goes for a more laissez faire attitude between government and private enterprise (“Seriously, federal government, leave us alone”), Ringo has a more intricate view of this. This is due to the fact that Larry’s books are nonstop action pieces that largely take place over the matter of days, while Ringo’s is a look at years of service in a particular region (in this case, Seattle). And even most of the politics boils down to “This is the nuts and bolts of how things get done …. poorly and with plenty of cash.”

From what I can gather, the series will be broken down by region, Grunge is Seattle, Sinners will be New Orleans, and I presume the third one will take place in MHI’s home base of Cazador. But that last one is just a guess.

Due to the way Ringo has this book set up, we get a detailed look at the day to day operations of an MHI outpost — dealing with MCB agents that aren’t running the whole bureau into the ground; occasionally making deals with things and people you’d rather see shot dead, but the sausage has to get made. This doesn’t happen with the main series all that often, because those novels usually start with them up to their neck it, with a truck backing up with another load.

Grunge is a little more laid back. Granted, Chad, our narrator, is … okay, I don’t know why he sleeps with everything that moves, but thankfully, if it’s off-putting to you, you don’t have to worry about it. There’s nothing graphic …. usually, barely anything suggestive …. and doesn’t drastically impact the story a lot.

And everything fits together.  There are plots for this book, and an overarching plot that will spill over into the final book. And while Ringo even tells you who the ultimate bad guy is (and it’s not difficult to deduce), it doesn’t change anything.

Obviously, there are cameos from some of the supporting characters in the series, and I suspect they will play a larger role as Ringo’s series continues.

Overall, I recommend this one. It deals with the politics of monster hunting, how the boots on the ground MHI personnel interact with local law enforcement, and even how locals interact with the feds and the MHI alike. Also, let’s just say that the politics of an otherworldly fashion come into play. And boy, do you want a lawyer for them. Heh.

I suspect the rest of the series will be just plain fun.

Declan Finn is a Dragon Award nominated author. His “Catholic Vampire romance novels” can be found on his personal website. As well as all the other strange things he does.

Appendix N Review

This is a review of Appendix N, … or, Jeffro Johnson’s big book of SFF, and the start of the pulp revolution.

My first experience with RPGs is thinking “Well, I might want to play with a rocket propelled grenade, but I don’t think they’d let me in my neighborhood. New York isn’t any fun.”

My first experience with actual Role Playing Games can boil down to video games. I don’t even mean an extensive look at Final Fantasy (I’ve only played VI and XII). But this includes but Dragon Age: Origins, the complete Neverwinter Nights, and the first Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (which inspired my system for vampires).

Actual RPGs I barely knew about. I got some of the jokes in The Order of the Stick comic. I knew of Gary Gygax. I had vague recollections of the great D&D scare of the 80s. I knew very little about Dungeons & Dragons, and I have no idea of the differences between version one, version two, and version nine (Is there even a version nine?).

I essentially I went into Appendix N cold, with no idea what the title referred to.

For the record, the title refers to the Appendix N of the original D&D dungeon master’s manual, wherein Gygax highlighted and cited all of the various and sundry works that inspired the facets of the world of D&D.

It’s a reading list.

APPENDIX N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons is a detailed and comprehensive investigation of the various works of science fiction and fantasy that game designer Gary Gygax declared to be the primary influences on his seminal role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons. It is a deep intellectual dive into the literature of SF/F’s past that will fascinate any serious role-playing gamer or fan of classic science fiction and fantasy.

Author Jeffro Johnson, an expert role-playing gamer, accomplished Dungeon Master and three-time Hugo Award Finalist, critically reviews all 43 works and authors listed by Gygax in the famous appendix. In doing so, he draws a series of intelligent conclusions about the literary gap between past and present that are surprisingly relevant to current events, not only in the fantastic world of role-playing, but the real world in which the players live.

And this spans …. everybody, really. Fred Saberhagen, Robert E. Howard. Edgar Rice Burrows, Lord Dunsany, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, Fredric Brown …. I’m not listing all of them here. Many of them I had barely heard of, and some I had never heard of. The end result of a series of critical essays into a — by and large — literary world of pre-Tolkein fantasy.

This not only provides the footnotes for Gary Gygax’s world, but a meticulous study of each element thereof.

At the end of the day, this is also a study of what has been lost, buried alive under a mountain of grimdark, postmodern feces claiming to be “edgy” fantasy, while they are merely just wallowing in the miserable. George RR Martin, I’m looking at you.

Appendix N shows just how fantastic fantasy can be when not bogged down by the arbitrary and capricious rules of “reality,” where “the real” does not equal “the true and the beautiful,” but equals the miserable to such an extent that it thus becomes unreal.

Imagine the epic rap battle of history between Tolkein and Martin, only imagine it done across an entire genre.

This is an impressive work of literary history. In fact, the only problem this work has is in its footnotes. Yes, just the footnotes. You can tell that this is based off of a series of blogs, since some of the footnotes refer to works covered in other months instead of other chapters. And …. that’s it. Considering the effort it takes to make a book out of blogs posts — and trust me, I know — this is quite impressive. There will be some people who have some issues with some of Jeffro’s likes and dislikes of worls such as Star Wars and Tolkien, but we can all survive a difference of opinion.

Five stars all the way. For anyone who wants to see the entire history of a genre at a glance, you need to own this one. Buy it now.

Afterwards, you can go out and buy the books he covers.

Declan Finn is a Dragon Award nominated author. His “Catholic Vampire romance novels” can be found on his personal website. As well as all the other strange things he does.

Eta Cancri review

Please welcome Xewleer to Superversive SF, he is a new reviewer and you can expect a lot more from him. His review is cross posted from his blog millennialking.wordpress.com

Spoilers! It’s a great book, and worth reading.


I just finished Eta Cancri by Russell May. It was, surprisingly for an author who was not on my radar before, an excellent read chock full of delicious theology. It was a treat, to be sure. The characters are living and breathing with distinct personalities. The descriptions are on point. The science is a good medium-hard, with just the right amount of give for philosophical and theological conversations the teeth they need to grow. Ah… that more stories which pride themselves on science and philosophy would take this route!

The book switches through various characters’ POV. My personal favorites were Ed and June, along with the AI Archie. Each one has a solid voice and drive that breathes life into this book more than could be expected. Indeed, books that switch perspective live and die on this sword. I could tell that the POV shifted through the author’s choices in word play, character focus and other hints almost instantly.

The conceit of the story, which involves demonic possession, bacteria and genetic modification, was well done and quite unique to this author from my experiences. Though I have experimented and read up on demonic possession and stories about it, this is the first time I’ve seen it used in such a broad and interesting way. Nothing triggered any sort of violation of the suspension of disbelief. It holds up the story incredibly well. This is dreadfully important in this genre as Russell did it. If the suspension of Disbelief is violated, then the entire book will fall over itself and the threads that he depends on to carry the story forward logically will be lost, unable to be gained back.

Though there is no part of the story I groaned at the reading of, I did feel fatigue about halfway through on chapter 3 or 4 (?). The story before and after focuses on multiple characters, the evil of the Demon Legion, the science, philosophy and theology mix and POV shifts. This middle bit has nothing that really sticks out too hard. The story sticks to Pierce the techno-everyman and doesn’t shift too much. There’s just too much dialogue and not enough cool stuff to give us a rest between theological questions. Not that I was exhausted by the questions, I just wish the heady brew was cut a little with soda. Even a bit where Ed deals with his crazy and preps for the ship coming in, or June sees something which heightens our horror at the actions of Legion would do much for the pacing and general interest. I’ll point out that Ed has no reason to not succumb or struggle with Legion’s influence and a decent POV could have been written comparing and contrasting his belief in Dame Fortune and the belief in God, which is touched upon later but not to my satisfaction.

I’ll point out that, theologically, what we call Dame Fortune is the Will of God. That the saved man has free will is not something I debate or question. I question how much Dame Fortune impugns it. (I use Dame Fortune as a conceit from the story. Mentally, I use the term ‘Fate’) Does a belief in Fortune change how free will operates as we continue in Christian Free Will or Willfulness Against God? I think that there might have been an excellent few points to be made there between Ed and Father Justinian, more than was done in story. Though, there is a sequel in the cliff hanger, and I will be purchasing it as soon as it comes out.

I also wanted a little more debate on the nature on Transhumanism. I am not fond of it, as I believe that the body has the critical mass to keep the soul ‘Human’ and that, at a certain point, the ‘I as I’ that is ‘You as you are’ becomes warped into something that could be described as ‘ME’ 2.0. Also, what is morality to someone who is neither permanent or baseline human? (Though those points are touched on) June seemingly has no contrast in character, but rather is June personality as June soul is June without much debate despite much lycanthropy. Various ideas are presented with authority, but I don’t feel it is earned. The matrons producing ubermenschen in the asteroid belts are not properly repudiated in a manner that I call an argument. Rather, it is just presented as wrong. I dig, but I’m really hoping for a similar thing to Ed in the sequel.

I’ve not gone into the plot because it’s quite simple. A colony goes dark and a ragtag group of cyborgs, everymen and mercenaries go to figure it out and cleanse with fire whatever’s in there. Just about right, really. You don’t need fancy pants intrigue for stuff like this. Most of the characters are moral, upright and probably one of the best portrayals of Christians I’ve seen in Science Fiction. I’m sorry John C. Wright, but sort of randomly turning Mickey the Witch into the Space Pope of the Seventh Humans because of his wife without a redemption scene just doesn’t compare to baptism after flamebroiling demonic abominations with improvised explosives created by a literal Biblical evil. But it’s different scopes. That scene doesn’t compare to the Cathedral of Luna in the 4th book of Count to Eschaton. Ahhhh it’s perhaps differences in scale. But I’d be very interested in talking with Russel May some time to break down what he believes and what his reasoning is.

I wanted MORE, if you could believe it. I find that I have a hard time reading philosophy directly, so I have a better time consuming it if its regurgitated through literature, especially when the author provides examples within the story to provide a more definite framework for the reader to investigate. It really does wonders for the most artistically inclined philosophers, who may not be able to as readily read the great works directly. Of course, this assumes the reader is able to properly manage things that are presented vs. their origin points. Counter and counter-counter is appreciated through the characters of Archie, Father Justinian and even Legion. Legion’s absolute Nihilism is well presented without the usual tropes in plain evidence. There’s always a fresh horror from him. His unfetteredness and nihilism make an excellent baseline for the ‘evil’ of the universe. Nihilism is a hell of a drug, kids, and leads to madness.

I also think the book is missing a carnival scene. But then again, I’m a sucker for them. I also wanted more crazy bomb stuff fight scene flip outs from Michaud and Lars, but ah.

The combat scenes are fresh, well done. The weapons properly treated with excellent extensions of characterization through them. The creativity that Russell displays drives the story forward with brazen steps. Lar’s and the rest of the characters’ spirituality treated so delicately as to be art. Ah! There are few flaws and many boons to reading this book!

Overall this book is mos defs a purchase soft-cover, maybe hard-cover kinda book. Sadly, there are only kindle copies available at this time. It is worth a read! It is SUPERVERSIVE. I hope with fervent prayer that we are coming to an era where the dominant voice in Sci-Fi is Christianity! If Russell May joins the luminaries of the Superversives, Castalia House and others, shall not the glory of God be expanded in this genre of atheists, science worshippers and deviants?  DEUS VULT!

Xewleer

I, even I, drink ink like wine.

Quick Review: “All the Wrong Questions”, by Lemony Snicket

Like Snicket’s other series, this series is not superversive. Since I’ve done so much writing on the Snicketverse anyway I figure I might as well do a bit on his prequel series to “A Series of Unfortunate Events”, “All the Wrong Questions”.

You may see a longer Castalia article later, but here are my current thoughts:

This series was both better and worse than “A Series of Unfortunate Events”.

“A Series of Unfortunate Events” was more creative in the sense that there really isn’t anything like it out there on the shelves. Snicket experimented and took risks with narration, literary techniques, absurdist humor, and general style that made the whole series feel, even when re-read today, like something fresh, new, and exciting. The only comparison I’ve ever been able to find is Douglas Adams. While “All the Wrong Questions” certainly feels as if it’s written by Lemony Snicket, with its literary references, love of wordplay, and entertaining narrator, it sticks much more closely to an established style (in its case, the series is very much a hard-boiled noir mystery, complete with world-weary narrator and femme fatale). There’s a built in structure in the series inherent to the genre that “A Series of Unfortunate Events” noticeably lacked; the books were formulaic, true, but the formula was their own.

Not that that structure didn’t have benefits. “All the Wrong Questions” is FAR, far better plotted. The plotting of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” was rather unwieldy and haphazard, but “All the Wrong Questions'” plotting is iron tight. Since the books – and the series as a whole – are structured as mysteries, this is very important.

The main character is more complex than any one character in “A Series of Unfortunate Events”. In the original series Snicket tended to define his characters with one memorable trait. Violet invents. Klaus reads. Sunny bites, and later cooks. Josephine is afraid. Jerome hates to argue. Hector is skittish. Olaf is a clever, drunken brute. As the series went on some shading was added to the characters, but not a whole lot; ask casual fans who Violet is and they’ll invariably say “She was the girl who invented things, right?”. And Widdershins will forever be “The guy who never hesitated”.

Snicket – this time our narrator AND protagonist – is more complex and interesting than any of them. Snicket is clever, resourceful, witty, and brave, but he is also arrogant, rude, shockingly good at lying even to people he likes, and Machiavellian to a frightening, even downright terrifying, degree. Not any one character – or at least any one major character – in “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is as interesting as Lemony Snicket is in “All the Wrong Questions”.

The series also does a much better job handling the theme of moral ambiguity. ASoUE ended on an anticlimax; the majority of the questions Snicket sets up aren’t answered and the moral standing of several characters is muddied for no apparent reason except that it helps the author get his message across; it certainly doesn’t improve the story. Questions about characters are raised, but the book ends without coming to any conclusions. Perhaps there’s a good message there, but it’s wrapped up in a poor story.

AtWQ’s ending is anything but an anticlimax; in fact, “Why is this Night Different from All Other Nights?” is about as perfect a conclusion as Snicket could have possibly written. This time the theme of moral ambiguity actually makes the book stronger; the main mystery driving the series is answered but your entire perspective about everything you’ve read has totally shifted – for, you see, you’ve been asking the Wrong Questions.

So, to all who are thinking about trying out the series, I end my article with this:

Your question throughout the series is almost certainly going to be “Why does Hangfire want the statue of the Bombinating Beast so badly?”

But that’s the wrong question. The right question is this: What lengths would Lemony Snicket go to in order to end Hangfire’s villainy?

The series is not superversive, but especially for fans of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” it’s highly recommended.

“A Series of Unfortunate Events” Netflix Review

As I’ve documented, “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is very much not superversive. That said, after writing two articles on the series I thought I’d give my first impressions on the Netflix series. Currently I’m almost done with the first half of “The Wide Window”, the fifth episode in the series (each book takes up two episodes; since “The Wide Window” is book three I’m on episode five of eight in the first season).

Rapid Fire:

– First off, I loved it. I want to make that clear now so all criticisms are remembered in that light. These are minor flaws I’m picking on. That said…

– Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf is a mixed bag. He wasn’t sinister enough in “The Bad Beginning” but his acting gained more range and subtlety by “The Reptile Room”, and now that I’m in “The Wide Window” (which I consider one of the series’ better books) I think he’s managed the perfect combination of terrifying and hilarious (“Please call me by my first name: Julio” cracked me up).

– The death of Uncle Monty (oh come on, the book is 18 years old now, I’m not going to bother with spoilers) was perfectly executed. That was legitimately heartbreaking, and DARK.

– Like NPH, I wasn’t sold on the children’s performance as the orphans at first, but I thought they did better and better as the series has gone on. They were all somewhat stiff in “The Bad Beginning”, but their acting in “The Reptile Room” was spot on, and so far they’ve done quite a good job in “The Wide Window”.

– I am REALLY unsure how much I like all the integration with the larger conspiracy subplot in the background. Don’t get me wrong, some integration was necessary, but I think this might be a step too far. We know too much too soon. I’m especially unsure of how much I like the big twist at the end of “The Bad Beginning”, though I would bet money that those people aren’t who we think they are. Maybe they could make it work – we’ll wait and see.

– As I was worried about, they unfortunately weren’t willing to commit to all of the darkness in “The Bad Beginning”. The scene in the book – which I recently re-read – where Klaus confronts Olaf on his plan to marry Violet, and Violet reveals he has kidnapped Sunny, is not funny AT ALL. Not in the slightest. It is absolutely terrifying, and disturbing. There isn’t a hint of a joke in any of it.

But the Netflix version added some subtle jokes to the scene. The jokes were very dry, and they were in keeping with the tone of the series, but they were still jokes. The show wasn’t able to commit to the full darkness, and it was a bit disappointing.

Ditto with the scene where Olaf slaps Klaus in the face. In the book, the whole theatre troupe laughs at him, but in the show, everyone goes silent. The book makes it clear that not only do they have no allies, everyone even approves of their mistreatment. The show lessens the sting, even if only a little bit. It was slightly disappointing.

Now the good stuff!

– The hook handed man and the person who looks like neither a man nor a woman (hereafter “the androgynous person”) were a delight. I cracked up when Olaf yelled to the children what they were supposed to do while dinner was cooking and the andogynous person suggested “We can wait patiently”. Also, apparently there is honor among thieves, because when the hook-handed man gambles with Sunny, he keeps his word when he loses.

– There is so much fan service it is ridiculous (in a good way). Throwaway lines, background shots, hints and references, there are TONS of Easter eggs for the eagle-eyed fans to catch.

– The tone is dead-on pitch perfect. Awesome! It’s a terrific adaptation.

– Most importantly of all, Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket is PERFECT, and I mean perfect. I can’t imagine anybody executing the character better than the series has done. He’s so freaking good, and so funny, that just by having him there I’m willing to forgive a ton of the series’ (in my view, minor) flaws. Seriously. I can’t emphasize enough what a dead-on flawless portrayal and interpretation of the character it is.

A final note: I was in the comments section of a review article cheerfully joining in on an active discussion with other ASoUE fans, a scenario that as you might imagine doesn’t happen particularly often. At one point, after a long, interesting conversation where many intelligent points were made, I linked to my Castalia articles on the book series, so people could see in more depth why I had an issue with the ending without me having to spell out my full case in detail again.

Later I again respond to somebody making a case why I thought the ending of the series – which is an explicit endorsement of moral relativism – is morally repugnant. Instead of an attempt to refute my points or offer an intelligent disagreement, a commenter wrote this:

I find it funny that somebody who writes on a website for Vox Day’s publishing house is trying to criticize someone else for promoting a “facile and evil philosophy.”

That was his whole response.

There you go. Doesn’t matter how intelligent my points are or how well I articulate them, I write on the blog of a publishing house that employs Vox Day as the editor-in-chief. So clearly I’m evil.

Sometimes there’s not much more to do but shake your head and hit “block”.

For the interested, my comment:

Snicket stacks the deck so much that by the end of the series he has essentially creates circumstances that force the orphans into a position of moral relativism – a lie.

Moral relativism is the philosophy of hip faux-Nietzche teens. Adults learn, ultimately, that just because bad people do good things and good people do bad things doesn’t mean you’re forced into a pattern of secrets and lies. Heroes and villains exist, and you can always choose what to be. But Snicket takes away agency and presents a facile and evil philosophy as unavoidable truth. It’s not. It’s a lie.

I expand here:

By book the twelfth, it becomes more clear than ever that Snicket has stacked the deck completely. He essentially forces the Baudelaire children into a situation where they are forced to burn down a building and leave people for dead. Stacking the deck is good to create conflict and amusing situations; it is not good to convince people that sometimes it’s necessary for children to burn down buildings and leave people for dead.

Now we reach book the thirteenth. In book the thirteenth, Snicket goes even further and tries to make the case that good and bad are a relative thing that doesn’t exist at all. To do this, he sets up Ishmael. Ishmael is essentially a man “Beyond good and evil”. The island’s customs, in very clear terms likened to religion, (Snicket uses the term “opiate of the masses”, a term Marx uses to describe religion), are set up by Ishmael as a way to control the unthinking people.

The Baudelaires, abandoned with Olaf for the apparent crime of rejecting the religion of the island, are forced again into an alliance with him, further cementing the idea that, as people beyond good and evil (religion, which they are smart enough to reject) they, Olaf, and Ishmael are in fact of a kind; they are the overmensch.

Later, some members of the island plan on a revolution, to overthrow Ishmael, and a false choice is set up: Olaf or Ishmael. Nobody tries for the third option – rejecting both and living according to an objective morality, where nobody is beyond good and evil and morality is determined not by customs but by natural law, discoverable by human reason and that all humanity is answerable to. People are either too stupid or too wicked, you see, to do the right thing, or else are forced into circumstance to do bad things – which means those things really aren’t good OR bad either way; morality is relative, right?

Ultimately we learn that Olaf, the Baudelaires, their parents, and Kit Snicket are really not so different, since they all lied at various times. This, itself, is a lie; just because people sometimes make bad decisions doesn’t mean you can’t choose to be a hero – a volunteer – or a villain. But no; we all either go with Ishmael and die, or stay with Olaf on an island alone.

And the series ends with the Baudelaires keeping secrets from young Beatrice; the opportunity of them simply telling the truth is something Snicket doesn’t even consider, because he doesn’t see a problem with lying. Everybody lies, said Dr. House.

It’s a wicked lie itself.