A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret.
Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.
When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.
But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.
I think these days more than ever, with a pandemic ravaging every corner of the world, I understand more keenly how absolutely necessary it is to find the escape hatch in reality, to seek out a pleasant corner and while away the hours inside a story. And there is no better one I can think of than this one.
“The House in the Cerulean Sea” is a nonstop pleasure. It flooded every corner of my mind with delight and warmth and made me feel reassured and nourished in channels of my heart which had stood scraped dry for weeks. It’s a feeling I wish I could put in a bottle to carry it with me through the dark.
The novel’s premise is as simple as it is ripe with comic potential. Caseworker Linus Baker of the Department in Charge of Magical Youths (DICOMY) has the distinct appearance of someone with a stick up his ass. His job is like a millstone, all weight and no warmth: investigate orphanages that house magical children, write a report that encourages either the continuation or discontinuation of these establishments, and justify it all within the uncompromising parameters of fairness. See, Linus Baker follows the rules with an unflinching rigidity, walking through life like a wound-up clock ticking dutifully through the seconds. But when Linus is assigned to investigate an island orphanage for magical children deemed especially dangerous, his world is a house with all its doors thrown wide open, so many new rooms added to a place he was so sure he already knew.
There is something vital and wondrous about Arthur and the magical children that came to him with tragedies already packed in their suitcases, and Linus Baker is more or less the human opposite of vitality and wonder. During his stay in the house in the Cerulean sea, Linus becomes acutely, achingly aware of the empty place at his center, and starts wondering at the grim march of the life he’d lived before. A life that once seemed perfectly fine, but which now pinches like tight shoes.
TJ Klune wears his heart on his sleeve, and “The House in the Cerulean Sea” is that much better for it. The novel is lively, exquisitely crafted and wildly propulsive. It brims and bubbles with quirkiness and playful detail, and the dialogue positively fizzes.
But it’s the cast of tenderly realized characters that carries the day.
There is something undeniably unconditional about the relationships here, and it stirred my heart. Klune’s cast of characters is achingly compelling. Arthur’s lightness of heart is infectious; he is a study in kindness, made of such a steadfast and dependable fiber. His magical children are every inch as erratic and colorful as Linus is restrained and monochromatic, and together they made something like the word “family”, disappearing into one another like partly shuffled cards, and rubbing their rough edges smooth against each other. I can’t tell you how much I relish stories that don’t believe that blood makes a family, but that kin is the circle you create, hands held tight. Linus, Arthur and the kids could not have been more different, but they all formed the same desperate plea in their minds: to be seen, to be loved, to reach and to be reached for. And as they all moved, tremulously, one step along the road between unknown and familiar, I found myself full of wishes for them—for that house in the Cerulean sea, away from the gaze of malice and a happily-ever-after.
But as entertaining and unrelentingly fun “The House in the Cerulean Sea” is, it is hard to forget that it’s also calmly, intelligently damning, and full of tough questions about difference, prejudice and complacency. The novel delicately carves out the myriad ways in which we see and don’t see our own world and the people around us. It questions our tendency to categorize things to make them easier to understand, to slip into stereotypes that create more fear than the reality. That said, “The House in the Cerulean Sea” is leavened with hope. It knows hate, but believes in people too. It’s a celebration of the nondiscriminatory nature of love that thoughtfully explores not only its rewards but its risks too.
All in all, “The House in the Cerulean Sea” is a cracking, charming novel, and I find myself hoping for a sequel. In fact, knowing this is a standalone, and there are no more books to come in this wonderful world is the novel’s only disappointment.