The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.
Tom Doherty Associates, Tor, Macmillian, New York, 2020.
YA/adult fantasy novel, 398 pages.
Although not cruel or careless like many of his coworkers, Linus Baker is an uninspiring caseworker who’s given his life to the minute rules of the bureaucracy of the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, down to the point of purchasing for personal reading (and occasionally quoting from memory) the official Rules and Regulations. So when an unusual and extremely delicate situation arises, he’s the only real choice. But what Linus finds at the island orphanage is so much more than he expected…
I’ve been excited to read this one because a book about a 40 year old civil servant monotonously documenting magically gifted youth and slowly coming alive to the true meaning of his work and life is exactly the sort of thing I would have loved at the target age (and still do today).
This book has an interesting dual nature of being both an engaging fantasy novel with several mysteries to unfold, and a very useful teaching tool for the process of learning to see systemic problems that are right in front of your face, so blatant they become invisible. I initially read hoping for a more complex, higher reading level but still MG appropriate diverse book to add for younger kids with high reading levels (like UnLunDun was on my last list). Unfortunately this wasn’t that.
Because Mieville was specifically trying to write for a young audience, his story remains clear of overt adult content despite an adult level of complexity. That made it perfect for oft-overlooked low-high readers – young people reading well above their age but not yet ready for the mature content of much fiction.
This one was just not written with the same intent. A major plot point is that a young child at the orphanage is thought to be the AntiChrist, sometimes referred to by that name, and has an obsession with death and threats. Linus specifies that he is not Christian himself but was raised going to church, so he has some idea of the thinking that others bring to that particular label. Also, while the intent was supposed to be comical, I found it a bit disturbing how frequently Linus threatened his cat (who is not harmed.)
Also the inclusion of swearing and mild innuendos which, while lighter than most YA, was still too heavy for a general MG audience. There is too much adult language for it to have a home in many middle school classrooms or libraries, especially combined with the occasional physical references and the potentially offensive religious and animal references.
That is not anything against the book – Klune wrote it as YA, and YA it is no matter how much I might have wished for something different (although it might appeal to readers who are much older or younger).
Let’s talk about the tech. The setting is similar to the normal world, but an alternate 1980s? 1990s? Computers exist, and television, but no cell phones, and internet doesn’t seem to be widely available in the world of the book – Linus is filing his reports by mail, with a week or more to get a return letter, which impacts him differently than rapid fire exchange of emails or messaging might.
This gave the book a gentle, nostalgic feel for me, though the target audience may approach it differently. It strikes me as an excellent book to read on a summer beach getaway, other than being a bit too compelling for casual reading. Even as the limited set of characters slowly grow on us, Klune doesn’t give away the ending – until the very last pages I was wondering what would happen, which made for a very satisfying second read.
Hints of a possible sequel were given, but the story also reached a natural, realistic conclusion. Irrespective of what his choices with the orphanage, the story arc here is whether Linus can even recognize that he is lonely and dissatisfied with his life. As fun as it is to read about not-quite-humans with magical superpowers (or corresponding superproblems), I suspect most of us will identify more sharply with Linus Baker’s drudgery and unexamined dissatisfaction wrapped in a dislike of change.
Lots of content warnings. Those discussed above, plus child abuse, bureaucracy, government registration and child removal programs, fire, death threats, food withholding, negative mention of same-sex relationships, bias against unusual appearance and non-binary status, genocide survivor, trauma, and more. That sounds pretty intense, but most just get mentioned, or are clearly called out by surrounding text or scenarios, and only the bits I discuss above push this past MG.
I really enjoyed this book and can see why it’s gotten good reviews. Klune brings a rare blend of humor and magic which makes nearly 400 pages fly by, and doesn’t drop the suspense until the very end. I only wish the editing had been approached differently so that I could wholeheartedly recommend this to young readers as well. As it stands, I’d suggest this for teens and adults, and it may work for some preteens as well, while we wait for Klune’s MG debut!
EDIT July 2021: So I wrote this review and scheduled it, when I became aware of some controversy around the book. I’ll address that in a separate post.