The House in the Cerulean Sea published by Tor books in 2020.
Each year my DDD (dearest darling daughter) sends me a book. I look forward to this ritual as it gives me something to read that I would never have found on my own. It’s not that our tastes are a perfect match – we have never agreed on the merits of Jane Austen – she’d rather abandon poor Jane on the floor of the Netherfield ball room, but we both have a fondness for fantasy books and she has shared some real treasures over the years: Patrick Rothfuss’s ‘The Name of the Wind’, Scott Lynch’s ‘The Lies of Locke Lamora’, Josiah Bancroft’s ‘Senlin Ascends’ and Naomi Novik’s ‘Uprooted’ are all memorable and highly recommended.
I just finished this year’s offering by TJ Klune – ‘The House in the Cerulean Sea’. Published only last year, the copy I received indicates it’s already into its fifth hardcover printing. I found this a little surprising, as it is a rather odd book. Actually I’m not sure what to make of it. The protagonist, Linus Baker, is a minor functionary with the ‘Department In Charge of Magical Youth’ (DICOMY), a dedicatedly grey organization where intelligence, levity and good humor are looked upon as the equivalent to a dose of the black plague. Baker inspects orphanages for DICOMY and writes reports in a windowless room crammed with other lowly functionaries while being hounded by soulless bureaucrats to produce more results in less time. His plodding life changes when ‘Extremely Upper Management’ selects Baker for a secret mission. He’s sent to the Marsyas Island orphanage to inspect the place and its headmaster, Arthur Parnassus.
The first problem with a book about magical youth is that it will automatically trigger comparisons to JK Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’ series and Klune’s magical youth are nothing like those found at Hogwarts. In Klune’s world, magical youth are considered dangerous and placed in ‘orphanages’ to keep them from harming anyone. For the most part, Klune’s magical youth also don’t look much like people – except perhaps for Lucy, the eight year old spawn of Satan and Armageddon’s favorite anti-Christ. For the most part, this is a new enough twist on the magical kid shtick to give the story some traction. Klune manages to get the reader developing a fair degree of empathy for his little band of magical youth, revealing pathetic backgrounds in a society that is poisoned by prejudice against them.
But there is a bigger hurdle when writing magical books in the shadow of Rowling. The Harry Potter books (at least the first three) are compelling for every age of reader. In my estimation, great children’s books, irrespective of the age at which they’re aimed, will have something that appeals to adults as well as the younger set. This is what sets Rowling apart from Klune’s book. While there are some wonderful bits in this story, it’s not a good sign when his magical youth end up being more believable than the main character. It’s like Klune has locked onto a ten to twelve year old readership and written characters whose appeal never wanders past black and white and into the more interesting land of nuance. There were just too many times when Linus Baker’s reactions to his situation, including the developing gay relationship that he develops with Arthur, that left me scratching my head and asking, “Really?” In fact the actions of many of the adult characters are similarly one-dimensional. Keeping things simple may be appealing to the younger set, but it doesn’t do much for older readers.
It seems that Klune has also discovered the word cerulean, and was entranced. It is a lovely shade of blue, and he gives it a fair airing by the time the novel is finished.
A good read for the ten year old. As something for the older crowd – how does the song go… ‘Am I cerulean?’