The House in the Cerulean Sea, TJ Klune (Tor 978-1-250-21728-8, $26.99, 352pp, hc) March 2020.
I am sitting at the dining room table, writing this review on April 19th. In my corner of the world, north of Seattle, we have been thinking about the coronavirus longer than almost anyone else in America. Governor Jay Inslee issued a stay-at-home order on March 23, almost two months after the nation’s first case was reported in western Washington and about three weeks after the burgeoning crisis at an area nursing home was discovered. Now we are all in it, to one degree or another, and I would be lying if I said that COVID-19 was not seriously affecting my reading choices.
I just cannot bear a bleak dystopian future right now. I know that is unreasonable and even unfair to a lot of great authors, but it is where my head is at. I need something that gives me hope that humanity will rise to this latest challenge. I wasn’t looking for saccharine sweet or even happily ever after but just something, anything, that was not bleak. That’s when the fates handed me the novel on the top of my TBR pile: The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune. I’m not going to lie, my long dormant raised-a-good-little-Catholic self almost regards this turn of events as a divine act by a book-loving god. For all the right reasons, because it is smart and sincere and brilliantly romantic, The House in the Cerulean Sea is most certainly, as author Seanan McGuire blurbed it, ”very close to perfect.” This is the book we all need to be reading right now; this is the one that makes so many things much better.
So, the review. Linus Baker is a caseworker for a typical and immense government bureaucracy, the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY). Middle-aged and average in height, weight, and looks, Linus is unique in his job dedication. He checks facilities charged with caring for orphaned magical children and makes certain there is no neglect or abuse. But as he makes clear in the opening pages, it is not for Linus Baker to wonder why the children are never adopted, or what becomes of them once they are adults, or why the city is papered with official posters declaring ”A QUIET CHILD IS A HEALTHY CHILD” and ”WE’RE HAPPIEST WHEN WE LISTEN TO THOSE IN CHARGE” and, more ominously, ”SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING. REGISTRATION HELPS EVERYONE!” Linus just does his job and does it well and as for the rest, well, he very carefully doesn’t think about any of that.
Magic is not tolerated in Linus Baker’s world (which looks remarkably like our own). He has learned not to question this fact, nor the many little slights that make his small life ever more difficult. He has an opinionated former alley cat whom he loves. He has his music (classics on vinyl). He has his dream of seeing the ocean. He has dogged determination to do a good job for no other reason than the fact that one should always do a good job. He has, he thinks, enough. But author Klune wants readers to know that Linus longs for more and gives us just enough hints to know this is true and to hope that he will be brave enough to know more is out there for him.
Then Extremely Upper Management sends this very reliable and predictable employee on an assignment to a small orphanage at the end of the rail line in a place called Marsyas Island. For one month he is to investigate not only the unusual children there but also the facility’s director, a somewhat mysterious man named Arthur Parnassus. Linus must submit thorough weekly reports, he must hold nothing back, he must do a proper job. What he is not supposed to do is become personally involved, to extend his emotions, to inquire beyond the most superficial of topics. He certainly should not become Arthur’s friend. There is no reason, at all, for him to become a hero. But sometimes events overwhelm a person; that’s the thing love can do, which, as it turns out, is the magic TJ Klune is really writing about.
The children are unexpected. They are complicated and funny and sad and more than a little bit terrifying. Over the month, they force Linus to consider the limitations of his job and the dark truths behind DICOMY’s mission. They force him to think about what else he might want for not only himself, but for them and for everyone else. As he faces the fears and prejudice of those who are without magic, as he challenges his bosses and his own weaknesses, Linus finds himself considering just what a different life might look like. (Don’t forget the presence of Arthur, who is the very essence of more.)
The House in the Cerulean Sea is about a group of magic-filled children who defy convention. (I cannot tell you how, but trust me – they are fabulous characters!) It is about two endearingly brave and kind men who stumble forward into friendship and gentle love. Finally, it is about the false promise of blind faith in authority and the courage it takes to challenge that promise. But mostly, it is proof that such precious books as this can still exist and still succeed and are still, very much, needed. Do not discount what TJ Klune has done with this novel, and do not ignore importance of this marvelous treasure he has unearthed for us all.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the June 2020 issue of Locus.
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