May 4, 2018

[Books] The Austere Academy (A Series of Unfortunate Events Book 5) Review

After blitzing through the second season of Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events, I decided it was time to catch up on my efforts to read the actual books of the series and hopefully get to the end of the books before a third season of the show could come along. It's made for quite the fun reading experience so expect to see reviews of the remaining books over the coming weeks. But given I had to cover books five to thirteen, this is going to last well into June.

The Austere Academy is quite the grim book and marks the starting point for the second season of the Netflix series. And it's hard to determine if the book was more grim than the TV show as most plot elements were consistent across the two but each had their own unique spin to things that made things even more difficult for the Baudelaire children.

And this is also when we start to hear more about the deeper mysteries of the series, which is where the fun really lies.

Synopsis: The Austere Academy is the fifth book in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events books. It is the first book where the Baudelaires are not entrusted to a formal guardian for once.

The book begins with Mr. Poe bringing the Baudelaire orphans to Prufock Prepartory Schoool, which will now be responsible for their care and education. There they meet Vice Principal Nero, a rather eccentric man who has a tendency to repeat what people say in a mocking tone and the misguided belief that he is a skilled violin player. There the orphans learn they are to live in a fungus-filled, crab-infested crab shack.

At the school they also meet the obnoxiously spoiled student Carmelita Spats, who repeatedly insults them as being "cakesniffers". And to make matters worse, eventually Coach Genghis joins the faculty and he is clearly Count Olaf in disguise despite the use of a supposed advanced computer system to detect his entry into the school grounds. The "coach" begins to make the orphans jog all night every day although they have no idea why. The only saving grace of the school is meeting Duncan and Isadora Quagmire, two of the Quagmire triplets as their other brother had died in the fire that had also killed their parents.

What I Liked: The Quagmires are some of the more interesting characters added to the series as they represent another set of orphans with an eerily similar story of having lost members of their family to a fire. They were also quite intelligent and introduced the Baudelaires to new ways to keep pace with the schemes of Count Olaf in the form of their commonplace notebooks for documenting his shenanigans.

And then there's the first time that the myterious letters "VFD" is mentioned - three letters that totally change the entire direction of the series. As much as the books were already intriguing given the different guardians that had been selected for the Baudelaires, this book lays the groundwork for a larger mythos that ties everything together back to the first book.

What Could Have Been Better: The character of Vice Principal Nero and his other teachers all didn't quite make sense and were certainly rather absurd. They may have a role to play later on in the series, when reading this book it's hard to appreciate them given how crazy they are. Then you throw in how Olaf was not detected by anyone at the school and there's really not much to look foreward to.

The plan to tire out the orphans by making them jog every night was quite inhumane but it sort of made sense. But it also wasn't that complicated a plot on the part of Count Olaf given he just wanted them to flunk out of class, I guess? There was the bit about the ending being related to Count Olaf's own experiences at the school, it felt like too little too late.

TL;DR: The Austere Academy is not my favorite book in the series but it is still a very important one given the introduction of key characters like the Quagmires and the concept of VFD. But it's a lot of misfortune to slog through, as if Mr. Snicket hadn't warned everyone about that already. Thus the book gets a fair 4 commonplace notebooks out of a possible 5.

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