#IMWAYR: The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
Update (4/2/2022): I typically participate in blogging groups that review kids’ books, but sometimes, I do end up reading adult books like this one. In the past, I have typically labeled those books as MG or YA when I review them, primarily because I still want my typically blogging audiences to see them! However, this has become confusing, so I have decided to re-label these books as adult books, while leaving the reviews in their original format. Thank you for your consideration!
Before we get to today's post, I have the winners of the 2021 Books by Asian-American Voices Giveaway to announce! We had 15 entrants and 5 winners, which means you all had a 1-in-3 chance of winning (not bad!). The winner of Displacement by Kiku Hughes is...
The winner of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin is...
The winner of Measuring Up by Lily LaMotte and Ann Xu is...
The winner of Parachutes by Kelly Yang is...
And the winner of The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen is...
Congratulations to the winners, and thanks to everyone who entered! Please don't forget to take a look at the list of resources I put together in light of the hate crimes against Asian-Americans (which have unfortunately continued since that last post—sigh).
Moving on, I unfortunately did not have a chance to read an MG book last week, so I am skipping MMGM for a second week. For #IMWAYR, I'll be discussing The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune, a rare novel that is both escapist and well-written.
Honestly, I thought this book was YA, but the main character is 40 years old, so I guess it's closer to adult. Still, it's super-fun and close in complexity to other YA books, so I'm calling it YA—YA readers (including you all) will definitely enjoy it! As a reminder, though, this book is not middle grade (MG) and contains mature content.
The House in the Cerulean Sea (which I've tried to call The House on the Cerulean Sea approximately 8 bazillion times) revolves around Linus Baker. Linus is caseworker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (or DICOMY), the government organization that keeps tabs on the magical children in "orphanages" (where there is no chance of adoption) or special schools. Linus is diligent about his job, paying careful attention to the Rules and Regulations that ensure his objectivity and distance from the children he monitors. His life has settled into a rhythm: go to work, avoid the scorn and judgment of his toxic boss and coworkers, deal with his obnoxious neighbor Mrs. Klapper, listen to music alone in his house, and repeat the next day. But Linus's rhythm goes out the window when DICOMY's Extremely Upper Management sends him to observe and report on a classified island orphanage. The six magical children kept there immediately raise all of Linus's caseworker red flags. But, under the guidance of the kind and charismatic orphanage headmaster Arthur Parnassus (who Linus certainly does not have feelings for, he tells himself), these children seem to be in a far better place than one would expect...and in a far better place than they could be if Linus's reports prompt DICOMY to shut the orphanage down. As Linus's eyes are opened both to the anti-magic prejudice he has ignored and to the richness of a life completely unlike his own, he is faced with the chance to change his life and the lives of countless others...but only if he is brave enough to take it.
This book is really good! I feel like a lot of the books I've picked up since I concluded my month of escapism in February have been super-depressing, horizon-broadening sorts of things, and as great as all that is, I can't be miserable all the time, so it's nice to get some more books in that are just plain fun and well-executed. The House in the Cerulean Sea is as strong as it is largely because of its effortlessly layered and delightful characters. Let's start with Linus. When we meet Linus, we immediately form an image of him in our minds. Uninformed, hapless, and unfulfilled are all words that come to mind. But over the course of the story, we see that it doesn't take a full-throated transformation to put Linus in a better place—he actually has many delightful attributes lying under the surface, just waiting to be drawn out by something (or someone—wink, wink). Linus is a kind and caring man with a greater capacity than you might think to learn and reframe his beliefs for the greater good. Against his own intentions, Linus finds himself connecting with the six children of the orphanage, whether through shared interests like music or his willingness to listen to them and have fun with them. The growing romantic relationship between Linus and Arthur Parnassus (yay for LGBT+ rep!) is definitely a big part of the story, and while it at first seems like the relationship here is utterly lopsided (considering how great Arthur is from the beginning), Klune really does a wonderful job of showing you how Linus is, in his own way, just as wonderful as Arthur.
Let's talk for a moment about these six children. I really don't want to tell you all about the children, as I personally really liked getting to meet them through the story itself (and am thus glad I missed the Amazon synopsis). However, because I can't help it, I will tell you that my personal favorite of the children was Talia, a garden gnome (beard and all) who enjoys death threats, working in her beautiful garden, and innocently and unintentionally posing extremely loaded questions to an exasperated Linus. Seriously, don't you love her already? The other five children are all deeply wonderful in their own ways (except Phee, who is noticeably underdeveloped in comparison to the others)—shy or extroverted, teenaged or young, human-appearing or...definitely not. Klune gives each of the children (again, except Phee, for some reason) plenty of time to develop...or to just show off their utter wonderfulness. On the topic of characters, we see some great ones on the island, particularly its magical caretaker Zoe Chapelwhite, who takes great delight in making Linus uncomfortable. (Now that I think about it, basically every character does—Linus is made uncomfortable very easily, so I guess they can't help but settle into a sort of rhythm.) And I also want to make sure to praise Arthur Parnassus, who runs the orphanage and is the sort of character who is so kind/wise/patient/etc. that he seems kind of unrealistic, but you can't help but love him utterly anyway. He does develop some through the story as well, though ultimately, the story is more about Linus learning to live life more like Arthur.
The House in the Cerulean Sea is a pretty long book, clocking in at 400 pages on the dot (and, considering that it is chock-full of surprisingly hilarious moments, some readers may barely be able to turn the page due to a high volume of cackling). Honestly, though, I'm really glad that this book is long, because it lets things feel quite leisurely as each character and plot element gets plenty of time to shine (of course, aided by Klune's shockingly pitch-perfect writing and plotting, and his witty third-person narration as well). This length allows for Linus's blind dedication to a boring job and boring life to be thoroughly explored, both by us and by him, and his resulting development never feels rushed or unrealistically simple. I will say that this book's exploration of prejudice (in this case, against magical beings) does fall a bit short. It is relatively nuanced for most of the book, but ultimately, the resolution is too easy, with the work to achieve it coming after the fact instead of beforehand—honestly, even if it was beforehand, I wouldn't be convinced that things would have turned out the way they did. It frustrates me somewhat that authors seem invested in tackling the awfulness that is prejudice, but only as much as they can without disrupting their perfect story. If you want to tackle the real world, tackle it—but know it doesn't end well, and don't tell us otherwise. Still, that's a relatively small issue, considering how much fun this story is otherwise, so I'll let it slide for an escapist book.
If any of you feel like a beach vacation would be good right now, know that The House in the Cerulean Sea is the next best thing. Both because there's an actual beach involved, and because this is absolutely the kind of story that you could sink into for hours while sitting on the beach/the balcony/wherever you like to sit at the beach (I don't know what your sun/humidity preferences are). This story's length, fantastic writing and plotting, truly delightful cast, and mostly-successful life insights make this an exceedingly well-executed and enjoyable read! If you're feeling at the end of your rope emotionally, take some time to heal and pick up a copy of this book!
My rating is: Really good!