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The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

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The House in the Cerulean Sea is an award-winning fantasy, that was released in March 2020. When I started to read it I was immediately pulled in, the writing style felt both unique and strangely familiar at the same time.

TJ Klune has so far written 29 novels, most of them focusing on the LGBTQ+ community, with many of them written in the fantasy genre. I have to be honest and say that while I do read a lot, I tend to stay very much in my lane, focusing on genres and authors that I am familiar with. However, despite having been released two years ago, like others that I have recently picked up, this one suddenly started appearing incredibly frequently on my Facebook feed, specifically on the book group feeds that I follow. Though reviews were incredibly mixed, I decided that I should make up my own mind, and I found the title was poetic so I added it to my Amazon wishlist. 

In February I was asked for my birthday wishlist and, luckily for me, it was one of a pile of four books that found their way into a birthday parcel from my sister.

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.

Fantasy has long been a genre that I enjoy, starting with the first time I ever read Lord of the Rings at 11. I had been complaining of boredom and he handed me this massive tome with its cracked spine and many folded and unfolded page corners. And then told me “Read this and then come back and tell me you’re bored.” 

I have always been a big reader, but this was my introduction to epic journeys and fantasy. I was hooked!

So, imagine my joy when I opened this book and from the first paragraph:

“Oh dear,” Linus Baker said, wiping the sweat from his brow. “This is most unusual.”

That single line told me everything I needed to know about this book. I just knew that I was going to be transported into a world that gave me tingles of excitement that reminded me of the first time I read Tolkien.

Linus Baker is a caseworker at the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, DICOMY for short. He has been working there for 17 years, the job is routine, he visits various orphanages and schools funded by the Department, files his reports and then the cases are done and he remains detached. His reports are always done by the book, literally. He follows everything written in DICOMY’s RULES AND REGULATIONS. Though Linus would love to know what happens after he files those reports, he also knows that to ask is not his place, therefore he refrains.

He lives a very mundane life. Everyday he makes the same bus journey to the office. He spends hours at his desk, Row L Desk 7, reading reports and filing paperwork. And when the day is over he gets the bus home to his attitude-filled cat Calliope and a conversation with his rather unpleasant and incredibly nosy neighbour Mrs Klapper.

He is lonely, though he refuses to acknowledge or admit it. He tries to remain positive about his lot in life, but he does have a dream, inspired by the only decoration on his work desk. Every day he looks at a mousepad covered with a faded image of a white sandy beach and a blue ocean and the tagline “don’t you wish you were here?”. Linus really wants to see the ocean.

Linus lives in a world where you report what you see, especially if it’s different. He is a cog in a Big Brother wheel. DICOMY is responsible for the care and education of children who have displayed anything resembling magical ability. These children are different and, therefore, for some reason, must be treated as outcasts by those who are considered normal. All around the city where Linus lives and the locations he visits are signs that encourage people to report things that they believe are out of the ordinary.

With every day like the last, Linus has a very routine life, but that all changes when he receives a summons to see Extremely Upper Management, a quartet of men and women who have moved through the ranks to become the overseers, the people who watch the watchers.

Despite considering himself a mere cog in a much bigger wheel, his rule-following and to the point reports have caught their eye. His direct manager and supervisor spend their time mocking him and his colleagues have no respect for him, considering him a joke even though they are all the same cogs. But he has the attention of upper management and they have an important task for him to do.

This is the moment when the real story begins.

Linus is tasked with a special mission, to visit an orphanage on an island near the village of Marsyas where 6 very special and unusual children are in the care of a man called Arthur Parnassus. 

Finally, after years of sitting in the shadows, spending time with his cat and the records he plays on his Victrola, he has been given the opportunity to see the water, visit the beach and get out of the stifling office where rules are paramount.

What Linus finds on Marsyas is not what he is expecting at all. He has been given an envelope of files, but they are incomplete, providing him with very little information about the children he is to watch. And so he goes in unprepared and unaware that his life is about to change forever.

Though the files are incredibly sparse when it comes to information, one thing definitely stands out, Lucy, also known as Lucifer is the Antichrist, a son of the devil. However, this six-year-old boy is not at all what he anticipated. The word antichrist puts in mind a boy with evil at his very heart, however, Linus discovers a child who jokes with his friends, loves music and dancing, does chores around the house and suffers at night because he is fearful of what he could become. He is conscious of his differences, but in this home by the sea, under the care of Arthur, he is thriving. He has friends, he has a purpose and he is happy. That he is the son of the devil does not define who he must become.

All of the children are unique, from Sal who is nervous at the thought of meeting with and being around new people and, when startled, transforms into a Pomeranian to Talia, a confident green-fingered garden gnome who spends her time threatening harm to those who cause her offence. 

Initially, it’s obvious that Linus feels like a fish out of water, floundering and desperate for oxygen. He has been put in a situation that is so far out of his comfort zone, but slowly he adjusts and before long the children and Arthur have pushed their way into his heart.

The house is charming and perfectly designed for the people who live within. However, it’s not magical. With every single day that passes, Linus questions the reasons behind the actions of Extremely Upper Management. What is it that they are so concerned about?

Without any idea as to exactly why he has been sent to the island, Linus sends his weekly reports, providing his employers with information about the children. He writes of what they are doing, that they are being educated, and that they are well-loved. But this isn’t what Management wants to hear. 

There is darkness at the heart of the DICOMY, and though Linus is part of the organisation he has no idea what happens once he has filed his reports and done what has been asked of him.

The book has been marketed as an LGBTQ romance, on the back of the copy of my book is a one-liner from author VE Schwab referring to it as ‘like being wrapped up in a big gay blanket,’ but either I missed something completely or the sexuality of the characters was so beautiful and central to the story that the gender of the couple didn’t matter, they were two people in love.

The love that grew between Linus and Arthur was a beautifully written sub-plot that was subtle, yet vital and they were simply perfect. It was like a tale of first love. Linus had never experienced love and Arthur seemingly hadn’t allowed himself the luxury of feeling anything for anyone but the children in his care.

It takes a little time, and though he knows he’s meant to remain impartial, observing what the children are doing and how they interact with the man who cares for them, his heart opens up to this oddball group of children who have been treated with distrust and hatred by everyone for their whole lives.

Every member of the house, including Arthur, is unique. Each child is an individual and this is obviously intentional.

  • Sal is a shapeshifter who has been abused in every home he has ever been placed in 
  • Talia is an over-protective gnome who makes the most creative threats
  • Chauncey, wonderfully endearing Chauncey is an amorphous sea creature who has a dream of becoming a bellhop
  • Phee is a forest sprite who takes time to warm up to strangers
  • Theodore is a wyvern who bonds with Linus after he is gifted with a single brass button
  • Young Lucy is the devil’s own, he has a temper, but he is also a child terrified of being removed from the home he loves

Just like Linus, each of these children is in a place where they have to conform, and hide away the truth of who they are. Like Linus, they need the strength to open up, get close and take a few risks, no matter what may happen.

Together, that’s exactly what Linus, Arthur, Zoe – the keeper of the island – and the 6 children, learn to do. And every moment of their journey is wonderful to read.

Spending time in Marsyas is a revelation for everyone. For Linus where once there was darkness and isolation, he has found the opportunities of the world.

Judging by the reviews I’ve read, this book is something like Marmite, either you love it passionately and think it’s the best thing since sliced bread, or you absolutely abhor everything about it and would designate it the worst thing you’ve read in ages. I get it, I’ve read books like that many times and been on both sides of the discussion. 

Many who gave this book a 1-star rating had a huge issue with the references that Klune himself made when talking of the influences he had when writing The House in the Cerulean Sea, namely the Sixties Scoop in Canada. I don’t feel qualified to comment on this as it’s not a part of history I have much (if any) knowledge of. So I’m going to direct you to the interview and some of the sources that I found during my own search to find out more:

I am really pleased that I added this to my wish list. Is it problematic? If the interview quotes are anything to go by then possibly. 

However, disregarding that, it was a beautiful fantasy tale pushing the merits of accepting people who are different for who they are. Telling you not to judge people for what they look like or what you’ve been told, before you have a chance to make your own mind up.

For me, the message is a positive one and when it was released it was an incredibly appropriate one, as it first hit the bookshelves at the start of the pandemic!

Positives

  • Beautifully written
  • Gentle romance
  • Wonderfully developed characters

Negatives

  • The story is entertaining, moving, creative but it would have been so much better had the author either acknowledged the influence of the tale or not mentioned it at all
5-star rating

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