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Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.
When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.
But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.
An enchanting story, masterfully told, The House in the Cerulean Sea is about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place―and realizing that family is yours.
An enchanting story, masterfully told, The House in the Cerulean Sea is about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place―and realizing that family is yours.Amazon.com
Just to be fun, and to prove that I am not stuck in my ways, I am going to try to go in ASPECT method order this time.
Atmosphere: The world of this book is… magic. It is closer to magical realism than high fantasy, but there are tinges of urban fantasy in it. The fact that magic exists, is just accepted. The fact that there are magical children who need to be protected (and from whom we might need to be protected) is also… just a given. There is a bit about the system that regulates such things, but since that is not really the point of the book, it isn’t given a lot of page space.
Which… Is fine. The story is very charming (more on that later) but the fact is that this world doesn’t really make any sort of sense if you stop and think about it for longer than 5 minutes. Which, sadly, I did… more’s the pity as it sort of made me enjoy the book a smidge less. This book benefits from being read quickly and without attempting to peer too far beneath the surface.
It’s a magical place with trains and cars but also no cell phones or music technology past the phonograph. It could be seen as timeless, or very much in the sort of “once upon a time, at some point in the last century…” sort of thing. The world is built just enough that we know what we need to know and we don’t really bump upon what we don’t know… unless, again, you stop to think about it in which case you might start to get distracted.
Style: Think a tad Douglas Adams, a tad, Terry Pratchet, but… more mellow and not trying so hard. The humor is here in spades but it isn’t a laugh out loud sort of humor or jokes told at full volume. Rather it is a bit akin to snide or sarcastic comments muttered under your breath that nearby listeners will accept with a wry smile of acknowledgment. The writing is simple enough that it could be given to middle grade with enough meat to the story that it will keep the attention of a more sophisticated reader. There are some gems in both the words used and how they have been strung together as well as the messages that the author is trying to convey (tolerance, acceptance, love, family, hope, etc) and it is only a bit preachy. To be honest, the preachy bits come when characters are actually sermonizing at others, so perhaps we can forgive the convention of blocks of text lecturing us… or at least not hold too much against them.
I say all that, but I have to add that a few of the lessons imparted to the children come across as someone who has written down something clever, a lesson about growth perhaps, and then has been waiting ever so patiently for weeks until just the right moment to drop a bomb of profound teaching. This might work better with a younger audience, but there were times when I found myself frustrated that the characters were not talking like real people talk… or rather, most of them weren’t. The main character Linus is the exception. More on him in a sec.
Plot: The plot is interesting enough although this is more of a story about characters and their internal tensions rather than a big climax. There are a few moments of tension but they are so quickly dealt with that there really is no worry. Otherwise, the story seems to take a bit to get going, and then it felt a bit stretched out toward the end. Too many big speeches and not enough kissing for my tastes. I am not sure if this book was geared toward YA audiences, in which case it feels too long, or adult contemporary readers, in which case the predictability of the plot becomes a concern.
Enjoyment: Despite what it might sound like, I did really enjoy this book. It was smooth, calming, charming, and sweet. Sometimes you just need a book/TV show about nice people doing nice things and for those of us who love Kim’s Convenience and Schitt’s Creek… this is the book form of something warm and comforting. I am not sure about the re-readability, but I can definitely see why people would want to stay in this world as long as possible. It is safe and fun.
Characters: Ok, so this is where TJ Klune really shines… but also where I feel he might have bitten off a tad more than necessary. There are a lot of characters. 1 main character. And then no less than 8 other important characters who are all together most of the time. This includes a love interest and 6 children. The fact that Klune was able to give all 9 people as much depth and personality as he was is a testament to his great writing.
And yet. A few of the characters are actually a bit one-note and two dimensional. Of course… they are the least “human-like” characters so maybe Klune gets a pass…. Or at the very least a tip of the hat. If you are going to have 9 very important characters, why not let 2 of them be limited, another be a smaller version of yet another…. That way you can concentrate on 5 and really really flesh them out… still an auspicious task, but far more manageable.
The 5 main characters then, 4 if we are being really honest, are written superbly. Writing children is hard. Writing children in a way that makes them believable and also interesting but not letting them be cartoon characters or unbelievable… is harder still. Klune does an amazing job with his 4 main characters, 2 of which are indeed children. The dialogue sparkles, the cuteness never gets cloying, and the relationship between the children and the adults is a perfect balance. Special note: our protagonist is Linus, a 40-year-old sort of frumpy loser-adjacent guy with a soft heart and a lot of potential that he cannot see in himself. He is definitely the audience stand-in and I just love that he is this frumpy curmudgeon guy who begrudgingly has a cat and is quietly depressed. Not too wild about how all you need to be happy is a family (significant other and children), but since this trope is subverted by his gender… again, it ends up being charming instead of frustrating. I would have loved some more about how Linus got to where he was before the book started in order to fully appreciate how far he goes, but maybe I am asking too much of this fluffy fairy tale.
Of course, I wish we had gotten a bit more of a few of them, but I wouldn’t have wanted any less of any of the others. The only cure would be to have not so many… but then the feeling of being inundated would have not been so apparent. Again, I say, a tip of the hat to Klune. I don’t envy the tightrope you walked, and you did it with style.
This gets me to the T: Why THIS book?
A book club member (who has started her own book review blog) highly recommended it. I think she said that she read it multiple times. I don’t always agree with her, but at the very least, I know that the books she recommends will be different from my usual fare. Thanks Jenna!
Would I recommend it? Yes. In fact, since I was borrowing her copy, I went ahead and ordered my own because I know my kiddo will enjoy it. So what if the predictability is… predictable. So what if the twist is not at all twisty. So what if there are cliches and some preachy lessons liberally sprinkled throughout. This book is, again, charming and sweet. It has a G-rated gay romance, if you are into that sort of thing (and YES, I most certainly am), cute kids, magic stuff, the takedown of a corrupt government bureaucracy, and a very very happy ending. Who could possibly want more?
Reminder of the ASPECT Method.
A Atmosphere: How did it make me feel? What was the world like? This might include overall tone.
S Style: What was the writing style like? Simplistic or sophisticated? Clunky or beautiful?
P Plot/Pace: Was it engaging? Were there holes? Did it feel too rushed or too long?
E Enjoyment: Was it a chore to finish or compelling enough that I picked it over other fun activities?
C Characters: Were they believable, sympathetic, interesting?
T This: Why did I read *This* book?