The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune
Published by Tor Books
Publication date: March 17, 2020
Genres: Book Clubs, Childhood, Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult
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Often when it’s time to begin a book review I try and draw from the facts—plot, place, biographical details. Because I read so much (and don’t have the discipline I should) specifics tend to blur by the time I sit down to write so in starting there I bring the book back to me. All of that is moot when it comes to novels like The House in the Cerulean Sea. I can sum up the book in two words: PURE. JOY. I could leave it at that, but will add some words as to why this odd, funny, tender, weird story about a sad-sack government caseworker who investigates orphanages in a made-up place at a made-up time affected me so deeply.
Linus Baker is a 17-year bureaucratic veteran at the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. He goes where he’s assigned and dutifully reports on both the people running the homes and the children living there. Which doesn’t sound like a big deal, except these children are unlike any known today. They are the fantastical creatures from fairy tales of the ages—gnomes, sprites, banshees, shape-shifters, witches. Linus is such a company man, so without imagination, that he’s chosen by Extremely Upper Management for a special monthlong assignment. He’s sent to a home that only has six children. He’s to monitor them, but also the headmaster, Arthur Parnassus. There are concerns about both. Linus gathers up his files and his cantankerous cat and heads to the Marsyas Island orphanage.
This assignment takes Linus to a place he’d only imagined in his boring, rain-soaked life—the ocean. The orphanage is on an island, away from regular humans because its inhabitants go beyond the norm, even for magical. In fact, while waiting to be picked up, Linus opens the case files and faints when he reads the first child’s profile. A 6 ½ year old boy, nicknamed Lucy. Whose father is Satan.
If you’ve had any sort of religious upbringing at all, reading those lines in The House in the Cerulean Sea, feels a bit odd. I had a brief moment of panic, thinking, ‘Can you write about this? Is this going to be really dark ala The Exorcist?’ Thankfully, I tamped down my qualms and, like Dorothy, stepped from Kansas into a world of kaleidoscopic color and life. Yes, Lucy’s father is the devil, but he is a little boy who loves 1950s music, has nightmares, and only threatens to boil your organs from the inside out when he’s having a tantrum. There is Talia, a gnome who protects her garden and her friends equally fiercely. Phee is a forest sprite, Sal a shape-shifter, Theodore a wyvern (think Game of Thrones dragon), and Chauncey, an almost see-through green blob of a boy, with tentacles and eyes that bob on stalks above his head. He wants to be a bellhop when he grows up.
All of these magical beings are cared for and taught by Mr. Parnassus, who turns out to be a tall, slender man, slightly older than Linus. In the following month it is up to Linus to understand Arthur’s intentions and determine if the orphanage is a safe place. But, as he observes the love and care shared amongst Arthur and the children he’s the one who is educated. He begins to see that it might be the intentions of his world that should be questioned.
Those are the bare bones of The House in the Cerulean Sea, but the heart of the novel is so much more. It’s no secret I’m not a fan of sentimental or sweet fiction, but when sweet is properly blended with dry wit, sarcasm, and genuine human emotion it’s a wonderful thing. Author T.J. Klune has created a world I wanted to stay in, a book I never wanted to end. Even thinking about it now makes me smile. While I know as a reviewer I should be able to articulate the reasons why you should read this novel, I can’t. Maybe it’s the other-worldly hopefulness I needed when this world looks so dark. When believing in sprites and gnomes is easier than believing what is being done by humans. If you’re looking for temporary transportation to a magical world, while at the same time staying very real, then Cerulean Sea is a must read.
If you appreciate outstanding fantasy fiction as a metaphor for the real world then you should try Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
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