The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Clune
Tor, pb, £6.47
Reviewed by Melody Bowles
The House in the Cerulean Sea is a lively, domestic fantasy about a school/orphanage for magical children. Think of Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters from X-Men, and you’re along the right lines. Protagonist Linus Baker is an inspector of sorts, sent on a secret mission to check the titular House is being run according to the Rules and Regulations. The book takes great pains to set up Linus’s humdrum city life, his harpy-ish neighbour and his overly-critical bosses who call themselves ‘Extremely Upper Management’. As an older gay man, he’s an unusual but refreshing choice of protagonist. His problems are also likely to be very relatable to the reader. Who hasn’t wished they could disappear off to a magic island after a hellish day at work?
There is no world-saving mission here. The book’s central conflict is very simple – Linus’s lifelong dedication to the rules versus headmaster Arthur’s free-spirited approach with the children. The book unfurls at a slow, whimsical pace, concentrating on parenting problems and themes of acceptance. Like in X-Men, the children face societal prejudice, which the story goes to great lengths to critique.
Despite this, it isn’t a heavy book. If there is a way to become the butt of a joke, Linus usually finds it. The dialogue is often silly, sometimes bordering on nonsensical, but that’s part of the fun. The children are an eclectic mix, including a gnome, a wyvern, a squid/human hybrid who wants to be a hotel porter and the literal son of Satan. I found myself warming to them and their quirks, mirroring Linus’s emotional journey. Whether you like the story or not will depend on your relationship with the characters. The book squeezes lots of juicy mileage from their backgrounds and their secrets, all served up against a backdrop of light mischief-making. There is also an understated romance between Linus and Arthur, which creeps into scenes here and there. It is not a romance of sweeping, dramatic gestures. Instead, it is built on philosophical debates and concern for the children.
The book does not do subtlety in terms of its messaging. You will be hit over the head with a hammer, repeatedly, with points such as ‘You mustn’t pass judgement on people.’ A scene where an angry mob of placard-waving villagers are shouted down felt too much like something embellished by a social media user. Perhaps there is fantasy in this too, achieving justice in real life is never usually as simple.
That said, I still found myself moved by the characters’ plights. The book’s emotional climax doesn’t disappoint, and I came away from the book with a smile. The House in the Cerulean Sea successfully delivers a warm, optimistic story about accepting yourself, accepting others and finding your place in the world.