The House in the Cerulean Sea

by TJ Klune

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: March 2020
ISBN: 1-250-21732-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 398

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Linus Baker is a case worker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. His job is to evaluate the orphanages to which children with magical powers are sent and ensure those children are treated properly. This must be done properly, with professional care and detachment and careful documentation so that his superiors can make the correct choices.

Linus has no ambition or desire to be anything other than a case worker. He does his job meticulously by the book, namely the DICOMY Rules and Regulations, which he studies religiously. Linus is therefore caught entirely by surprise when he is summoned without explanation to the offices of Extremely Upper Management on the intimidating 5th floor. That summons turns out to be a new assignment for which Extremely Upper Management believes Linus to be ideal: an orphanage on an island far from the city, home to some highly unusual (and, in one case, disturbing) children and a headmaster who is as odd as his charges.

Management is correct about Linus up to a point. He is a bureaucrat and a stickler for rules. However, Extremely Upper Management did not account for the possibility that Linus does the work that he does because he cares deeply about children, or that, if the two come into conflict, the children might matter more than the rules.

The House in the Cerulean Sea is the sort of book that tells you exactly what it's doing, assures you that you'll enjoy it anyway, and then you actually do. The plot developments are obvious well in advance, the tugs on the heart-strings are telegraphed and obvious, and there are very few surprises. But the story is told with such charm and feeling that I at least didn't mind at all, and indeed would have been furious at the author if he hadn't delivered the expected ending.

This is not the book to read if you want to delve deep into the implications of the world-building. It follows children's book logic in several important places: intentions matter more than institutional structure, sincerity is persuasive, and courage is rewarded. A few reviews compare it to Nineteen Eighty-Four, but this is wildly misleading beyond a few trappings of the setting. The internal logic of the book is closer to a cross between Good Omens and Dr. Seuss. It's a "good people are rewarded" sort of book and wears that on its sleeve.

One of the things that Klune does extremely well is subtlety of characterization despite the relative lack of subtlety in the plot. Linus starts the book as a caricature whose life is nearly a blank canvas, and by the end of the book he feels like someone you know. Klune pulls this off less by filling in the canvas than by making careful use of all that negative space to put emotional weight and depth behind a few telling details like Linus's pyjamas, records, and cat. He also does an exceptional job with the mannerisms and habits of speech of both Linus and the headmaster of the orphanage. To say much more would be a spoiler; suffice it to say that Klune captures an interaction style that I have rarely seen in novels and certainly not in a fantasy novel of this type, and does it so well that I was strongly reminded of people I've known.

Anyone who knows me is unlikely to be surprised that my favorite character in the book is Zoe, the sarcastic and fiercely protective sprite who owns the island on which the orphanage is located, but almost all of the characters are wonderful. One or two of the children are a bit one-note, but the group dynamics make up for that, and the suspicious, thoughtful, and respectful interplay between the three adults is beautifully done. My only real complaints on the characterization front are that some of the confrontations in the nearby village felt a bit strained, and I think Helen got short shrift and could have been fleshed out some more. I will say that the motives of the villains never made much sense, but they didn't have to; they're essentially monsters in Linus's story, and they do enough to serve that purpose.

I now want to read the story of how Zoe and the headmaster met, although I'm not sure Klune is the right person to write it, and I'm not sure he left enough emotional space for another novel.

Sometimes I want to read a positive, hopeful book in which people learn and grow and good things happen to good people, one where the author is unapologetically manipulating my emotions and I don't care because I want these people to be happy. If you feel the same way, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It's lovely.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-12-29

Last modified and spun 2020-12-30