(originally posted 19 March 2021)
*Note: There are light spoilers in this review, but nothing is said that cannot be surmised by the blurb on the dustjacket of the book*
“What’s the point of living if you only do it how others want you to?”
This is one of the themes at the center of The House in the Cerulean Sea (Tor Books, 2020), the first of two books released in 2020 from Lambda Literary Award-winning author TJ Klune. Klune’s YA novel introduces the reader to Linus Baker, a kind-hearted 40-year-old with thinning hair and a few extra pounds around the middle. Linus spends his days as a case worker assessing magical orphanages for DICOMY, the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, and his nights at home listening to records with his cat, Calliope. Linus’s habit of doing everything by the book—specifically, the DICOMY’s RULES AND REGULATIONS—lands him a special, classified level four assignment from DICOMY’s Extremely Upper Management to spend a month at the secluded and mysterious Marsyas Island Orphanage, run by the charmingly enigmatic Arthur Parnassus. Though Marsyas Island appears to be the real-life version of the sandy-beached blue ocean on Linus’s faded desktop mousepad at work, he soon realizes that the place and its inhabitants are so much more than he ever could have expected.
At its core, The House in the Cerulean Sea is a story of love. Klune illustrates how powerful familial love can be when fostered in such a warm environment as the one created in Arthur’s home. Arthur and his children—the devilishly delightful Lucy; the sensitive, introverted Sal; the optimistic Chauncey; the tough-but-sweet Talia; the pragmatic Phee; and the curious Theodore—open the rigid case worker’s heart to possibilities Linus thought unimaginable, and help him realize the difference between living and existing. The narrative shines when Linus and Arthur are helping the children—and each other—through their emotional trauma. In a poignant scene when Sal—who has been shuffled around to more orphanages than any of the other children, and fears Linus’s visit will lead to another displacement—finally invites Linus to appraise his room for the DICOMY evaluation, the two have a touching conversation about feeling small and how it’s okay to allow oneself to take up space. Through this and other moments of vulnerability, Klune also illustrates the wonderful audacity of self-acceptance.
While the language of the novel can come off a bit twee at times—do not turn Linus’s use of the phrase “oh dear” into a drinking game, you will lose—the book generates an aura of genuine goodness that will warm you from the inside out. Part of this goodness can be attributed to the easy romance between Linus and Arthur. Klune’s bio emphasizes the author’s belief in the importance of having “accurate, positive queer representation in stories,” and it is more than refreshing to read a queer narrative that isn’t centered on coming out or anti-LGBTQIA discrimination or violence. Klune creates characters who are admirable, complex, and relatable. By the end of the novel, it’s hard not to feel like a member of the family at Marsyas Island Orphanage.
The House in the Cerulean Sea is an enchanting, uplifting fantasy that offers readers a welcome escape from the turmoil of reality. While there have not been any announcements about a sequel, fans of Cerulean Sea will enjoy the equally-heartening The Extraordinaries. For more information on these and Klune’s other works, visit the author’s website here.