When I finished this book, my first thought was that this was the most beautiful book I had ever read!
Frankly, I’m not even sure how to start this post. I’m actually struggling to find the words to describe this book. And, you know it’s good when I HAVE NO WORDS! ME! NO WORDS! What is going on here?!?
<Side note: If you are a fan of The Good Place, I feel like I’m channeling Derek right now, right?>
So back to the book. I don’t think I have ever read a book that encapsulated the idea of kindness better than this one. Every part of this book is engaging and inspiring. That’s why I think everyone should read The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.
So, a little world building first: In this world, there are people with magic and ordinary people. Magical children are housed in orphanages all over the country and are maintained and monitored by the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY).
Linus Baker (our hero) is a career investigator with DICOMY, known for his fairness, objectiveness, and he has dedicated his life to his career. But his career doesn’t seem to make him happy. He seems stuck in a rut – he lives alone with obnoxious neighbors next door with only a (homicidal*) cat for company. He doesn’t seem to have ever traveled anywhere or done anything that isn’t been related to his job. His only joy seems to be his record player that he listens to every evening. But he dreams. And his one dream: to one day see the ocean.
After so many years with DICOMY, Linus is given an extremely sensitive assignment by the Extremely Upper Management. Linus must travel to the Marsyas Orphanage and inspect the five magical children and their caretaker living there. The kicker? The orphanage is located on a small island in the middle of the sea. Linus cannot believe his luck! He has always wanted to see the ocean and thinks that this will be an adventure. A work adventure to be sure as he still has an inspection to complete, but an adventure nonetheless. So he packs his bags and his cat and starts off. After a long train ride – all the way to the end of the line, a ferry ride across the water, and a short drive, he finally arrives at his destination.
What he finds isn’t exactly what he expected. He had been warned by DICOMY that these six children aren’t just any magical children – they are the most dangerous of all magical children. They are: Lucy, short for Lucifer – the Antichrist; Phee, a forest sprite; Theodore, a wyvern; Talia, a female gnome; Sal, a were-Pomeranian; and Chauncey, a… well…no one knows exactly what Chauncey is. Their mysterious caretaker is Arthur Parnassus – he treats the children as if they are his own. But what he finds is a group of people full of life with dreams even as they deal with the traumas in their pasts.
Linus thinks he must be vigilant – he must be objective and analytical. He must stay apart from the subjects of his investigation. Day by day, it becomes harder and harder. He starts letting the children and Arthur into his heart. And he begins to worry about DICOMY’s reasons for wanting a detached inspection. He lets himself enjoy his adventures with the children and even convinces Arthur to allow them a short trip into town where all of them face the prejudices of the villagers who despise their existence on the island.
Suddenly it feels like the attacks are coming from everywhere: DICOMY questions his allegiance and the village on the mainland starts making threats against the children – trying to force them out. All Arthur and the children want is to live in peace and they are terrified of DICOMY closing them down. As his investigation and his time on the island keeps dwindling down, he has to make a decision about who he is and who (and where) he wants to be.
So, I feel like I’ve done a lot of exposition and not a lot of gushing. But that’s about to change because every part of this book was absolutely wonderful and there are so many reasons why.
The character development in this book is where Klune really shines. All of the characters are amazingly well thought and drawn out, but I found Linus’ character fascinating. He starts out the book being very clinical – kind, but clinical – the kind of person who follows the rules to the letter. He detaches himself from his caseload and doesn’t acknowledge or recognize his impact on the community he serves. As he goes through the Marsyas Orphanage case, he begins to soften, to finally be able to see the people behind the case numbers. And he notices the discrimination and bigotry that surrounds these magical creatures that he assumed he had been protecting for his entire career. I think it takes a lot to confront one’s own shortcomings, to really see things the way they are instead of as you wish to see them. To become an ally and advocate instead of a cog in a corrupt machine.
I also love how Linus becomes the lead in his own love story. He and Arthur have an unexpected and instant connection and it is beautiful to watch them dance around their feelings for each other. I loved it even more because Linus is not what you would expect from a romantic lead. He is forty years old and described as being short, overweight, and completely unfashionable. It was wonderful to see a “normal” person fall in love and be loved in return.
Whereas Linus had the most growth, all of the characters on the island are delightful. It was such a joy to read about who they are, their hopes and dreams – even in the face of the reality that they may never be accepted by the outside world. Each one of the island inhabitants – the children and the caretakers – were so warm, so engaging, that I couldn’t help falling in love with all of them.
This book definitely has a message of acceptance, understanding, peace, and love. The anti-bigotry message can be heard loud and clear. And sometimes when I’ve read books like this, it can feel like you’re being beaten over the head with the message. In this case, there was a great balance of message and story. The story portrayed the message and it didn’t feel overbearing. It makes the reader feel a great deal of sympathy and empathy to others who feel like prejudice and discrimination dominate their lives. Especially in this time of civil unrest, it feels very poignant.
This is the book we all need.
The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune, published 2020
*Mr. Librarian insisted that this descriptor be added. Calliope isn’t the tamest of cats and he thought it was crucial that you know that. It should be said that she never actually murders anyone and becomes more docile on the island.