Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea, by TJ Klune

Russ Allbery eagle at
Tue Dec 29 20:39:27 PST 2020

The House in the Cerulean Sea
by TJ Klune

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: March 2020
ISBN:      1-250-21732-6
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     398

Linus Baker is a case worker for the Department in Charge of Magical
Youth. His job is to evaluate the orphanages to which children with
magical powers are sent and ensure those children are treated properly.
This must be done properly, with professional care and detachment and
careful documentation so that his superiors can make the correct

Linus has no ambition or desire to be anything other than a case
worker. He does his job meticulously by the book, namely the DICOMY
Rules and Regulations, which he studies religiously. Linus is therefore
caught entirely by surprise when he is summoned without explanation to
the offices of Extremely Upper Management on the intimidating 5th
floor. That summons turns out to be a new assignment for which
Extremely Upper Management believes Linus to be ideal: an orphanage on
an island far from the city, home to some highly unusual (and, in one
case, disturbing) children and a headmaster who is as odd as his

Management is correct about Linus up to a point. He is a bureaucrat and
a stickler for rules. However, Extremely Upper Management did not
account for the possibility that Linus does the work that he does
because he cares deeply about children, or that, if the two come into
conflict, the children might matter more than the rules.

The House in the Cerulean Sea is the sort of book that tells you
exactly what it's doing, assures you that you'll enjoy it anyway, and
then you actually do. The plot developments are obvious well in
advance, the tugs on the heart-strings are telegraphed and obvious, and
there are very few surprises. But the story is told with such charm and
feeling that I at least didn't mind at all, and indeed would have been
furious at the author if he hadn't delivered the expected ending.

This is not the book to read if you want to delve deep into the
implications of the world-building. It follows children's book logic in
several important places: intentions matter more than institutional
structure, sincerity is persuasive, and courage is rewarded. A few
reviews compare it to Nineteen Eight-Four, but this is wildly
misleading beyond a few trappings of the setting. The internal logic of
the book is closer to a cross between Good Omens and Dr. Seuss. It's a
"good people are rewarded" sort of book and wears that on its sleeve.

One of the things that Klune does extremely well is subtlety of
characterization despite the relative lack of subtlety in the plot.
Linus starts the book as a caricature whose life is nearly a blank
canvas, and by the end of the book he feels like someone you know.
Klune pulls this off less by filling in the canvas than by making
careful use of all that negative space to put emotional weight and
depth behind a few telling details like Linus's pyjamas, records, and
cat. He also does an exceptional job with the mannerisms and habits of
speech of both Linus and the headmaster of the orphanage. To say much
more would be a spoiler; suffice it to say that Klune captures an
interaction style that I have rarely seen in novels and certainly not
in a fantasy novel of this type, and does it so well that I was
strongly reminded of people I've known.

Anyone who knows me is unlikely to be surprised that my favorite
character in the book is Zoe, the sarcastic and fiercely protective
sprite who owns the island on which the orphanage is located, but
almost all of the characters are wonderful. One or two of the children
are a bit one-note, but the group dynamics make up for that, and the
suspicious, thoughtful, and respectful interplay between the three
adults is beautifully done. My only real complaints on the
characterization front are that some of the confrontations in the
nearby village felt a bit strained, and I think Helen got short shrift
and could have been fleshed out some more. I will say that the motives
of the villains never made much sense, but they didn't have to; they're
essentially monsters in Linus's story, and they do enough to serve that

I now want to read the story of how Zoe and the headmaster met,
although I'm not sure Klune is the right person to write it, and I'm
not sure he left enough emotional space for another novel.

Sometimes I want to read a positive, hopeful book in which people learn
and grow and good things happen to good people, one where the author is
unapologetically manipulating my emotions and I don't care because I
want these people to be happy. If you feel the same way, I cannot
recommend this book highly enough. It's lovely.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-12-29


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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