The Kids are Alright: Review of The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
The Cerulean Sea. T.J. Klune. Tor Books, 2020.
It was with a level of trepidation that I pitched the review for The House in the Cerulean Sea. When a book is so meaningful, so poignant and so personal, it can be challenging to write a nuanced reflection on it. Not out of any forced promise of objectivity; reviews are subjective declarations of passion and opinion, after all. No, my worry was—and is—far more mundane and frustrating: How do I review such a layered story without ruining the joy of discovering its nooks and crannies for the first time? What follows then, is my attempt at enticing you to pick up what has been one of the best reads of the past year, without telling you too much.
TJ Klune’s titular house is an “orphanage,” a euphemistic term for institutions that function as both home and school for magical children. Our ever-flustered protagonist, Linus Baker, works at the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY) as a Case Worker. His job is to evaluate these orphanages, making sure they are fit for purpose. In other words, he reports on how well the children are being cared for while their abilities are simultaneously controlled and stifled. His latest case takes him to the Marsyas Island Orphanage. Run by Arthur Parnassus with the help of caretaker Zoe Chapelwhite, this orphanage proves to be the most challenging of Linus’s career, though not for the reasons he (or, initially, the reader) expects.
The children are a fantastic bunch. Even in a world where special abilities are an accepted fact of life, they are particularly gifted. That being said, magic in the book is never just for the sake of spectacle, though it is accurate to call their magic quite spectacular. Rather, it is part and parcel of growing up, right alongside discovering hobbies (like collecting buttons as a substitute for a hoard of gold), doing household chores (like threatening to compost unwanted guests in the garden), and looking at career options (like wanting to be the best bellhop on the planet).
Klune does in one book what many writers fail to do with entire series. He makes each of the children fully fledged characters with distinct personal histories. Instead of being six uniform placeholders for six different sets of powers, each one is a joy to meet and gradually discover. Making Linus the reader’s entry point is a brilliant choice because his incremental interactions with the children let us see them as nuanced individuals, not mythical stereotypes introduced through exposition. Of course, it helps that Linus is both excellent at observing little things and charmingly ordinary, which makes his reactions nicely detailed and refreshingly relatable.
The adults who run the orphanage are, likewise, wonderfully fleshed out through their time spent with Linus. Arthur can most accurately be described as an enigmatic open book. He wears his heart on his sleeve and makes no effort to hide the fact that he wants to encourage the children to discover every aspect of themselves, including learning the full extent of their powers. Yet, there is an unspoken mystery about him, the final revelation of which is expected to be an explosive discovery but ends up being beautiful, intimate, and heart-breaking. As for the caretaker, Zoe could have been left as a clinical, no-nonsense archetype. Instead, we discover her fierce love of the children, Arthur, and of Marsyas itself, which not only make her a formidable guardian but also drives home the central conceit of the story: family.
Ultimately, the impact of the book lies in the way the author takes so many disparate people and lets them find a sense of belonging. When the expectation is to hide your true potential lest you be branded a monster, there is nothing more revolutionary than unconditional love of self. The children, and even Arthur and Zoe, have been discarded before, in one way or another. They have been scrutinised, deemed lacking and left broken. Marsyas has given them a home where they realise that it is possible to find acceptance even with such traumas. Their family does not pretend to gloss over all their cracks but embraces each member because of them—going so far as to hold them together whenever necessary. It is a credit to Klune that he is honest about the impact of prejudice and abandonment even when writing such fantastical characters.
Linus comes to re-evaluate his bureaucratic job and the role of DICOMY, but he does not respond with a clichéd overthrow of the whole system. Without spoiling the ending, I must confess that it was a sheer delight seeing exactly how he encourages that same change of heart in others. Positive change is a communal act of healing and growth, and it is with that ethos in mind that Linus—an introverted gay man who knows that it is like to live on the fringes of society—makes others come round to loving the wonderfully dysfunctional family he has been saddled with.
Ibtisam Ahmed (he/him) is a queer Bangladeshi immigrant living and studying in the UK. He is completing a PhD at the University of Nottingham, titled “The Decolonial Killjoy,” and his research focuses on utopianism, decolonisation, queer theory, race and justice, and cultural politics. He is involved with several activist groups and campaigns dedicated to fighting queerphobia in his home country, his host country, and in the Commonwealth. A long-term SF, fantasy, and superhero nerd, he delights in meaningful representation and loves to uplift marginalised voices in his work.
This review was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in December 2020 from a hard pitch. The author and editor belong to similar academic and fan circles, but were not well-acquainted prior to the editing process. A review copy was not arranged.