The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
You’re a second-class citizen, viewed with suspicion if you have magical powers in TJ Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea (2020). Magical children are confined to orphanages that are overseen by the rigid bureaucracy of the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY). One of DICOMY’s most diligent, rule-abiding caseworkers is 40-year-old Linus Baker, a pudgy and — though he barely admits it to himself — deeply unhappy gay caseworker who lives in a lonely apartment in a city where it’s always raining and overcast.
One day Linus receives a special, top secret assignment from DICOMY’s Extremely Upper Management: travel to an island orphanage for a month to investigate an orphanage of six children who are particularly uncommon in their magical aspects, as well as the orphanage’s master, Arthur Parnassus, who is viewed as problematic by Extremely Upper Management for reasons they are (at least at first) unwilling to share with Linus. And they want detailed, thorough weekly reports from Linus while he’s there.
So Linus packs up his cantankerous cat Calliope, farewells his nosy neighbor, and travels by train from the gloomy city to the sunny seashore, and then to Marsyas Island. At first he’s overwhelmed by the extremely unusual and even dangerous children in the orphanage on the island. They include six-year-old Lucifer (“Lucy”) whose father is the devil himself, an intelligent wyvern, a grumpy and bearded young female gnome, a painfully shy shapeshifting boy, a winged forest sprite, and an amorphous green blob with black teeth named Chauncey. They’re overseen by their mysterious but charming guardian Arthur, to whom Linus finds himself reluctantly attracted.
Linus tries hard to stick with his objectivity and his hefty book of rules and regulations, but it’s difficult when he realizes that Lucy has a good heart despite his inherited affinity for evil, and the gnome Talia adores gardening and has a soft core under her extremely crusty exterior, and Chauncey’s earnest goal in life is to be the best bellhop ever (somewhat difficult for a blob, but he manages to practice on Linus). And when Arthur is so charming. But there are still things that Arthur and DICOMY haven’t told Linus yet.
The House in the Cerulean Sea is a sweet, heartwarming story that focuses on diversity, acceptance and love. It’s marketed as adult fantasy, and the main character and his love interest are both middle-aged. But it’s written on a middle-grade level: simplistic and straightforward writing, obvious symbolism, no adult/R-rated language or content, and overt moralizing.
Hate is loud, but I think you’ll learn it’s because it’s only a few people shouting, desperate to be heard. You might not ever be able to change their minds, but so long as you remember you’re not alone, you will overcome.
Affirmative messages in literature are nice, but I enjoy them a lot more when they’re subtle. The House in the Cerulean Sea is the fantasy counterpart to the SF novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet: short on plot tension and complexity (especially considering it’s an adult novel); long on positive feelings and inclusiveness. But the characters are charming and the children have an engaging quirkiness. Lucy in particular is an interesting character; he wants to be loved, adores old-fashioned records, and struggles with terrible nightmares, but has a penchant for terrifying people and saying truly awful things. It’s amusing when the hippie employee of the record store in the Marsyas village treats Lucy with equanimity.
“Who’s the square?” J-Bone whispered.
“Mr. Baker,” Lucy whispered back. “He’s here to make sure I don’t burn anyone alive with the power of my mind and then consume their souls from their smoking carcass.”
“Rock on, little dude,” J-Bone said, offering a high five which Lucy gladly accepted. “I mean, I hope that doesn’t happen to me, but you do you.”
Seeing Arthur’s dedication to helping Lucy find and accept the good in himself, and to creating a family with all of these difficult and unusual children — and with Linus as well, if he’ll let go of some of his rigid ideas — is at the heart of The House in the Cerulean Sea. It’s a warmhearted, straightforward fable of love, acceptance and found family for our time.