Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

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ARC received from the publisher (Tor) in exchange for an honest review.

Life before had been mundane and ordinary. He knew his place in the world, though every now and then, the dark clouds parted with a ray of sunshine in the form of a question he barely allowed himself to ponder.

Don’t you wish you were here?

The House in the Cerulean Sea first popped up on my radar because it seemed like a lighter, queerer version of The Gray House. Even though I have long since given up on finding anything even remotely similar to my all-time favourite book, it seemed worth a try.

And I definitely didn’t expect I’d love it quite as much. It’s so sweet, kind, and compassionate I couldn’t help but adore it. I didn’t know how much I needed something so fluffy, it was just…pure joy to read. From the characters, to the atmosphere, to the message, it felt like a warm blanket, not to mention it felt so wonderfully fresh.

Linus Baker is an unassuming bureaucrat, a caseworker employed by the Department In Charge of Magical Youth. About forty, with a spare tire around the middle, lives to work, reads the book of Rules and Regulations for fun, never disobeyed authority in his life. In short, not your usual fantasy protagonist. One day, he is summoned before the Extremely Upper Management and sent on a special assignment, to supervise and send reports about a classified orphanage for six especially special children – a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist – and Arthur, their equally enigmatic caretaker.

The plot is pretty much standard slice of life, with most of the book being taken up by Linus spending time with the children. Tonally, it’s a strange beast, but it works very well – there are light touches of comedy, especially with names like Extremely Upper Management, but at the same time, it’s plenty serious, with its commentary on prejudice and some amazing character development. And there are so many feel-good moments.

In a way, this is the fluffiest dystopia I’ve ever read. It’s set in a world much like our own in the 80s or so – with computers and record players, but before cellphones – where all magical beings are forced to register and magical children without parents are put into orphanages. The discrimination and the way magical children are distrusted and mistreated and dehumanised and told they are monsters, and how this permeates society are the core aspect of the book. Even Linus, who cares about his job and does the best he can for the orphanages he’s supervising, has some things to unlearn.

And Linus himself is a fascinating character. He’s very straight-laced and by-the-book (literally!), but also has a heart and a strong sense of justice. Plus, it’s not very often we get middle-aged gay men as protagonists. Seeing him struggle with how he’s been conditioned to act and confronting his own prejudices when faced with reality is interesting; seeing him go from his former sad, lonely life to finding his place in the world is downright heartwarming.

But one of the best thing about it is how wholeheartedly it rejects the common fantasy notion that people are born with a certain destiny. Yes, Lucy is the Antichrist. But he is also a child, one who loves records and music and saying shocking things and struggles with nightmares, but would never hurt those he loves. And yes, Linus is nobody special – neither magical, nor especially skilled (though he is a competent caseworker). And yet he manages to do so much. In a genre where the idea of chosen ones is so annyoingly pervasive, that was great to see.

And it’s no less effective or important for being light-hearted and feel-good and using love and acceptance instead of guilt. I don’t know if it’ll change any minds. I hope it does. But if nothing else, it’s an optimistic reminder that change starts small and that even the most timid bureaucrat can change things. Sometimes, that’s precisely what you need.

Enjoyment: 5/5
Execution: 5/5

Recommended to: everyone looking for an uplifting book, fans of slice of life, those looking for ownvoices LGBTQ+ representsion and worlds without homophobia, fans of The Gray House (I mean, there’s like a dozen of us but) looking for something similar but lighter and more linear, those looking for unusual protagonists
Not recommended to: curmudgeons (or maybe that’s precisely who needs it…), those who don’t like heavily concept-focused books

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