Book Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

The House in the Cerulean Sea – TJ Klune (Tor, 2020)

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.

14 thoughts on “Book Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune”

  1. When I was still working at the library I was in charge of the monthly newsletter for science fiction and fantasy. I remember looking at this book and being unsure about including it on my list because my newsletter was for adults. If I remember correctly, the novel may have been categorized as YA. I know some folks define YA as books about teens, but I’ve read many novels about teens that are not for teens at all. I tend to think of YA as more about how the book is written (complexity of plot, characters, and sentence structure being the big three).

    1. We’ve had the same problem at the bookstore. We’ve generally kept it in general fiction but it definitely has a YA vibe to it. Even though the main character is a middle-aged man I think the plot and characterization read more YA.

  2. I was thinking of reading this but I think I’ll steer clear! I don’t much like the sound of the flat characters etc. Thank you for helping me make my TBR one book shorter!

  3. Great review, Karissa. I know this is a popular book, but I had also heard that it was inspired by the 60s scoop, which put me completely off. I think I’ll leave it, because I feel sure I’d feel the same as you.

    1. I had only heard that it was a fun fantasy story so it was surprising to me. I could definitely see the parallels as I was reading but to realize that he really did turn the 60s scoop into a fantasy story was a bit off-putting.

  4. I pretty much immediately DNFd this book when I tried to read it a couple of years of ago, and mainly for the reasons you mentioned. it felt very juvenile to me (which is fine, but just not the tone im personally interested in) and also i found the writing very twee which i really do not get along with.

    1. I knew it was supposed to be a fun fantasy read but I was surprised by how simplistic it was. Twee is a good word for it. I really expected there to be more to the story.

  5. An interesting perspective, I really appreciate your honest review. I wanted to read this book at one point but then removed it from my TBR list after reading a coupe of reviews which said to me that though this is undoubtedly a lovely book it won’t be for me. It seems from your review it is oversimplifying certain things, including trauma, which will also not agree with me, though, admittedly, it is also not easy to find a balance between real and imaginary in fiction that wants to make a broader “real-life” statement but still remain in the realm of fantasy. Actually, I have been finding recent releases a bit “insubstantial” as of recent, hence I don’t post about them (hopefully, this tide will change!).

    1. Yes, if you’re feeling frustrated by insubstantial reads, this won’t be for you. I had heard it was a fun book and hoped there would be more to it but it was all quite simple so that was disappointing.

  6. Hmm I definitely see the problems with this – especially the challenge of determining who the audience is! On one hand, it seems like best for young readers, but then why wouldn’t the publishers make it more clear it’s a YA (or even younger) read? It’s almost like they don’t want the book to sell LOL

    1. I know the author’s written other books and so I wonder if they are classified for adults or as YA? My library only classified it as fantasy/sci fi so I guess officially it’s an adult book but it’s a very simplistic one.

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