This book was fine. It was a pretty fun, very light read without any particular surprises. I’d heard only positive things about it and so went into with fairly high expectations which were perhaps unfair to what the book is. While it’s not exactly a young adult novel – the main character is a 40-something government worker – it reads a lot like one. The characters are very black-and-white; everyone is exactly who you expect them to be when they are introduced. The plot progresses pretty much exactly as I expected it to and things end happily. There’s nothing wrong with that but I had expected a little more.
Linus Baker works for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY). He is a case worker, meaning he visits various orphanages where these magical youth are housed and investigates whether or not they are running smoothly and makes recommendations for their continued operation. This is a world where magical and non-magical beings live in a tenuous sort of harmony. Magical beings must be registered and magical youth are housed in these orphanages under official care. (There don’t appear to be any magical families.) When Linus is assigned to an orphanage he’s never heard of on Marsyas Island, he knows he’s in for something entirely unexpected but just the extent of what exists there is beyond his imagination.
Marsyas Island is run by Arthur Parnassus, the charming headmaster, where six extremely unusual magical children live. (Unusual even for magical beings.) Linus is completely unprepared for what awaits him there. He’s even more unprepared to be completely charmed by what and who he finds on Marsyas Island.
Linus, of course, lives a boring and drab life in an unnamed city where it rains constantly. His life revolves around his work which he does efficiently and by the book but receives no recognition for. Marsyas Island is full of sunlight, laughter, and beautiful growing things. The children are indeed unusual and powerful enough to cause concern for government officials but each one of them is also sweet and thoughtful and well-adjusted (despite the trauma we learn they have each been through). This is thanks to the careful and loving work of Arthur who oversees the orphanage and shields the children from a world that is afraid of them.
Before long both Linus and Arthur are teaching each other to see the world in new ways, along with the delightful magical children they both grow to care for. As I said, it all goes pretty much exactly how you’d expect. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that as long as you’re prepared for it. It’s sweet and goes down easy, like a cupcake. And sometimes a cupcake is exactly what you want.
In the descriptions of DICOMY and the orphanages and the registration and treatment of magical beings, there are obvious parallels with real world situations. While reading more about the book on Goodreads, I found mention of an interview where Klune says the story was inspired by the residential schools and 60s scoop of Indigenous children in Canada. Klune is neither Indigenous nor Canadian; I’m not the person to say whether or not his use of this real life history is appropriate or not but it seems to me it bears some obvious problems. Even without that connection, The House in the Cerulean Sea‘s major problem is that it’s an oversimplification of a serious situation. Children who go through the trauma of being removed from their families (all of these magical children are orphans and we learn at least one of them witnessed the government-sanctioned death of their parent) and are shunned by society and brought into sometimes abusive homes are not simply going to be cured by the power of love and laughter.
The problem, as I see it, seems to be that Klune wants to have it both ways. He wants the reader to know how serious the situation is by alluding to these incidents and drawing obvious parallels to real-life history. At the same time, he wants to write a fun, fantastical book that isn’t about trauma. In trying to balance these two opposing concepts, the reader is left feeling somewhat unsure and satisfied.