I bring you a review with an addendum because… Well, you will see why.
The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
A NEW YORK TIMES, USA TODAY, and WASHINGTON POST BESTSELLER!
A 2021 Alex Award winner!
The 2021 RUSA Reading List: Fantasy Winner!
An Indie Next Pick!
One of Publishers Weekly’s “Most Anticipated Books of Spring 2020”
One of Book Riot’s “20 Must-Read Feel-Good Fantasies”
Lambda Literary Award-winning author TJ Klune’s bestselling, breakout contemporary fantasy that’s “1984 meets The Umbrella Academy with a pinch of Douglas Adams thrown in.” (Gail Carriger)
Linus Baker is a by-the-book case worker in the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. He’s tasked with determining whether six dangerous magical children are likely to bring about the end of the world.
Arthur Parnassus is the master of the orphanage. He would do anything to keep the children safe, even if it means the world will burn. And his secrets will come to light.
The House in the Cerulean Sea is an enchanting love story, masterfully told, about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place—and realizing that family is yours.
“1984 meets The Umbrella Academy with a pinch of Douglas Adams thrown in.” —Gail Carriger, New York Times bestselling author of Soulless
About the author:
TJ KLUNE is a Lambda Literary Award-winning author (Into This River I Drown) and an ex-claims examiner for an insurance company. His novels include the Green Creek series, The House on the Cerulean Sea and The Extraordinaries. Being queer himself, TJ believes it’s important—now more than ever—to have accurate, positive, queer representation in stories.
This is the first book I have read by TJ Klune, and I didn’t know much about him or his books before. This story feels like an adult fairy tale, although I think it would be suitable for teens and YA as well. I also think it can fit into the category of an adult coming-of-age story, as the protagonist, Linus Baker, finds himself and learns to be his own person throughout the story, which covers just a few weeks of his life.
Linus Baker, the main character, is a grey man who lives in a grey world and has a grey job. The reviews mention 1984 and the similarities with the protagonist of George Orwell’s story are evident (minus the political angle. This book feels much more YA than that), and it also reminded me of the protagonist of Brazil, working at his little desk, and swallowed up by a strange world whose rules he tries to live by. Linus has no close friends, he doesn’t get on with his peers or his superiors at work either, and he only seems to care about his cat (it doesn’t appear to be mutual), his music (he loves to listen to records), his sunflowers (a splash of colour in his otherwise grey life), and his job. He lives by the book of Rules and Regulations of his organization and reads it as if it were the Bible. Suddenly, he is sent on a special mission, an extremely secret one, and he discovers an orphanage on an island very close to his dreams of a tropical paradise. The sea is blue (well, cerulean), the skies are sunny, and everything would be wonderful, almost like a vacation, if it weren’t for the peculiarities of the magical children who live at that orphanage. Well, and of the master of the orphanage and…
The novel looks at prejudice, persecution, harassment, intolerance, fear of the other, and the way society tends to lock away those who make it feel uncomfortable or don’t easily fit in. We are all familiar with such issues, that thankfully, have been changing in recent times, but not everywhere, and there’s still plenty of room for improvement. The novel is also full of hope; it explores the idea of found and chosen families; of finding a place you really belong to, and of how we can all help change things, one step at a time. There is also love (a couple of sweet ‘queer romances’, as they are described by the author) although it doesn’t become the dominant element of the novel, and the main romance is one of those “will-they/won’t they” situations where everybody else sees what is going on before the protagonists do.
The six children living at the orphanage are magical in totally different ways: some can do things, some are just… well, nobody knows exactly what kind of being they are, others have powers that can turn them dangerous, and all of them have been abused and marginalised because they don’t fit in. In a society that encourages compliance, surveillance, and uniformity, they are too visibly different. And that causes fear in the population, and it is encouraged by the powers that be.
Linus is reluctant and suspicious at first, but it seems that his superiors misjudged him. He is not just a bureaucrat without a heart who follows blindly the rules and remains detached and professional at whatever cost. He is genuinely devoted to the spirit of the job and cares about the children’s welfare, and that means he learns to see them for who they really are.
I loved the characters, especially the children, and Arthur and Zoe, the adults on the island, as well (later we meet some of the inhabitants of the town who are also formidable, Helen, the mayor, most of all); the way the story is told, like a fairytale; Linus’s transformation (which never becomes overdramatic or unbelievable); and the wit, humour, and quirkiness of it all. Some of the descriptions are as magical as the story, and by the end of the novel, I wanted to visit the island and meet the children and the rest of the characters as well. There are some reveals too, as things are not as they seem in more ways than one, but I wasn’t surprised by what we discover, and I think many readers will have guessed, or at least suspected, what we find out. But that didn’t spoil the enjoyment for me, and I hope that will be the case for most readers.
If I had to mention something I liked a little less, it would probably be the fact that “the message” of the novel is made quite evident and repeated in different ways, and readers who prefer subtlety and are fond of a less-is-more approach might feel it is heavy-handed. This fable makes its point clearly and somewhat forcefully, but it does have its heart in the right place, and the style of the story does fit into the genre, as does the fact that the story is not set in a specific time or real location (there are some vague references, mostly to do with music, but that is all). Some readers also felt that there are too many negative comments about the weight of the protagonist, but as we see the story from his point of view (although it is narrated in the third person), this seems to be another element of his lack of insight into who he really is, and further evidence of how much he has internalised society’s standards and opinions.
I have mentioned that the children have suffered abuse in the past, and they aren’t the only ones in the novel to be victims of prejudice. This is not described in too much detail, and it is mostly left to readers’ imaginations, but I would advise caution to those who feel they might be upset by such topics. You might also want to read my addendum to the review, as that might affect your feelings towards reading it.
The ending is as happy as it should be, and there is a final surprise thrown in (well, a couple) that will delight readers.
Readers who are fond of fantasy, fairy tales, fables, and particularly enjoy adult coming-of-age stories and those who like quirky characters and Young Adult books should check this novel. It does have a positive message, and it wraps it up into a whimsical story full of heart. Highly recommended.
Just a few quotes as a taster:
‘These children aren’t animals. You aren’t on a safari with binoculars, watching them from a distance. How are you supposed to evaluate the children if you don’t even take the time to know them?’
‘We all have our issues. I have a spare tire around my middle. His father is Satan. Nothing that can’t be worked out if we try hard enough.’
‘Hate is loud, but I think you’ll learn it’s because it’s only a few people shouting, desperate to be heard. You might not ever be able to change their minds, but so long as you remember you’re not alone, you will overcome. ‘
‘Why can’t life work whatever way we want it to? What’s the point of living if you only do it how others want you to?’
When I was checking the reviews of this novel, having almost finished it, I found out that there was a fair bit of controversy going on about it. Many reviewers that had given it good (or at least fair) reviews at first, went back to change their reviews and give it only 1 start (You can check the novel’s entry in Goodreads if you want to read about it in more detail).
It seems it all stems from this interview:
In the interview the author refers to this article:
Here another article about it, this time from the Indigenous Foundations:
There’s plenty of information about the Sixties Scoop available, but it seems that a lot of the people who read the novel had never heard of it. I hadn’t either, although, unfortunately, such things have happened before (and we can but hope they won’t happen again, but perhaps they are already happening) in other places, and other things that share similarities with it have happened, even though the circumstances were different. (In my country, many children from Republican and/or communist families were removed from them and “given” in unofficial adoptions to people loyal to Franco’s regime in the years after the Civil War and up to the 1970s. The case of the Australian aborigines is well-known, and I have reviewed books talking about similar subjects before).
Some readers felt the author was exploiting the story and the children and the communities involved.
If we take into account that nobody would have known about it if the author hadn’t freely mentioned it on one occasion (I read some other interviews, and it never came up); it doesn’t appear as if he was trying to use the historical events and people’s interest in it to sell his story, but I know these days it is difficult to know what might or might not cause outrage. I am sure many writers have read some horrific stories or news items that have sent them down a pathway that has resulted in a book that is very far from the original event, because authors are influenced by many things, and inspiration can take bizarre forms sometimes.
In any case, you don’t need to worry about the book upsetting you because of mentioning the real events or being very close to the facts. That is not the case, although that doesn’t mean the story doesn’t have an emotional impact, because it does. But you can always read the reviews, the comments, and counter-comments and make your own minds up.
Thanks to the author for this book, thanks to all of you for reading, commenting, sharing, and liking, and remember to keep smiling and keep making the best of things. ♥