Linus Baker works for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY), charged with investigating orphanages where magical children live to make sure they are up to par. Linus takes his job seriously, as he truly does care about the children. But he also is very clear to stick to the Rules and Regulations, the book that dictates the careful detachment and exacting processes required of his job. If his life is drab and without much color, even as Linus dreams of the sea, he accepts his lot and doesn’t expect much more.
One day, Linus is surprised to be called before Extremely Upper Management. His superiors rarely get involved with the likes of Linus, so he is taken aback when they give him a confidential assignment to do a month-long case study at the Marsyas Island Orphanage. It turns out the orphanage houses six very unusual and reportedly dangerous children. When Linus braves reading the file, he learns about 6-year-old Lucy (short for Lucifer) who is the literal anti-christ, and that is enough to send Linus’ head spinning. When he meets the other children, including a garden gnome, a forest sprite, a rare wyvern, a tentacled green blob, and a boy who turns into a Pomeranian, Linus’ mind is pretty much blown.
At first, Linus is determined to keep the professional detachment that has been a hallmark of his career at DICOMY. While he is frequently terrified (mostly of Lucy and his threats of mass destruction), he is there to do his duty and report back to Extremely Upper Management so they can determine if the children are safe or if they need to close the orphanage. However, the more time Linus spends on the island, the more he finds himself charmed, both by the children and their caretaker, Arthur Parnassus. Linus quickly realizes that while the children seem wildly different than even most other magical beings he has met, they are also greatly misunderstood due to their differences. The people of the village seem terrified of them and are full of judgement. And Linus knows how the world at large would react to seeing these most unusual kids. But as the weeks go by, Linus recognizes that while they may be different in many ways, the young charges are children just like any other, and don’t deserve the scorn and hatred. Linus also comes to care for Arthur, as well as to find a peace on the island he never thought he would experience.
Linus’ time on the island soon draws to a close, however. He has a report to write and a job to do. He isn’t supposed to get emotionally involved. But Linus’ heart has now found a new home with Arthur and the children, and an unexpected sense of family that just may change everything he planned for his life.
I am a big fan of T.J. Klune’s writing, so I was really excited to read his newest release, The House in the Cerulean Sea. I found this one a bit genre defying, in a good way. This book highlights Klune’s ability to write both humor and drama, giving us a story with frequent funny moments (mostly at the hands of the children, particularly Lucy), but also one with a lot of depth, intensity, and real emotion. Klune describes this as a contemporary fantasy, which I think fits well. While it is definitely contemporary (versus a more medieval style fantasy), it doesn’t quite feel present day. Nor is there any clearly defined sense of country or location where the story takes place. This could have left the book feeling sort of lost, but instead, there is a lovely, otherworldliness to the story, as well as a sense of timelessness that I really loved. It fit so well with the story and with the magical elements in the book.
This story is largely Linus’ journey and most of the book focuses on his transformation. Linus is an interesting character, in that he quite clearly cares about the children he is charged to protect. However, Linus fully believes in the system and is determined to follow every rule to the letter. That includes being detached emotionally, following the Rules and Regulations exactly, and trusting in DICOMY to know what is best. He doesn’t question what happens to the children he studies after he turns in his report. That is not his part of the process. It is not that Linus doesn’t care, because he does. It is that he only sees his part of the big machine and is determined to follow it exactly. He doesn’t ask questions and he doesn’t see beyond his duty. When the story starts, Linus is determined to perform with his usual detachment, but he quickly finds it almost impossible. These children find their way into his heart, as does Arthur. As Linus sees how the children are treated by outsiders and learns more about their backgrounds, he realizes how this system has failed them. He also begins to realize just how joyless his own life has been, and how much life on the island has rejuvenated him and given him a sense of joy and wonder that has long been missing.
Much of that change comes from the children, and they are the source of a lot of the humor and playfulness in the story. As I mentioned, Lucy is quite the character and I found myself as charmed by him as Linus was. He is a six-year-old with the power to destroy the world and he likes nothing so much as to give folks a good scare. But he also loves music, enjoys helping make dinner, and has nightmares that scare him, just like other kids his age. The other children are also endearing, particularly as we get to know them along with Linus. The crux of the conflict is how these children are feared and hated for being different. The story hits on themes of prejudice and discrimination, the dangers of a mob mentality, and the way we often fear things we don’t understand. The book definitely has a message, and it is one that you can see coming fairly early on, but I think that it works given the style of the book.
The romance between Arthur and Linus generally takes a back seat the other story elements, but it is a there as a lovely undercurrent throughout the book. We can feel the connection grow, notice their side-long glances, and are aware that many of Linus’ feelings about the island come from his connection to Arthur. But the romance is not the focus here and it flows along gently and sweetly, but not as a key element. Despite that, I enjoyed the tenderness and there is a very clear happy ending for Linus and Arthur together.
So I really loved this story and found it unique and really engaging. The book is a bit genre defying, as I said, but I think it works really well as a mix of fantasy and contemporary world, a bit of a YA feel, and a sweet romance. I fell in love with these characters and this wonderful found family, and definitely can recommend the story.