Title: The House in the Cerulean Sea
Author: T.J. Klune
Number of Pages: 396
I liked this book, but I didn’t LOVE it like most people seemed to. There had been so much hype that I expected to get much more out of it than I actually did.
The novel’s protagonist, Linus Baker, is an overweight middle-aged gay man with a neat and orderly but cripplingly lonely existence. He’s berated and abused by almost everyone he meets and only has his vintage records and his ornery cat Calliope for company. He works for the government assessing the welfare of magical children in institutional care and prides himself in his professionalism and obsessive attention to detail.
One day he is summoned by Extremely Upper Management and told he’s been given a new objective- to go to Arthur Parnassus’ island orphanage and assess the living conditions of the children who live there. He’s warned of the secrecy of his mission and that the children here are more powerful and dangerous than any he’s encountered before.
Once on the island, Linus is entranced by the mysterious Arthur and his strong relationship with the kids. The group consists of: Chauncey (a viscous pile of goo who wants to be a bellhop,) Lucy (a boy, short for Lucifer because he is literally the son of the devil,) Sal (an anxious boy who transforms into a Pomeranian when he feels threatened,) Phee (a sprite closely bonded to the natural world,) Talia (a caustic female gnome with a full beard,) and Theodore (a wyvern who loves to collect small trinkets and hide them in his hoard.)
They’re initially very distrustful of Linus but despite his professional rule to ‘not get attached’ he starts to feel at home with Arthur and the children and even begins to fall for Arthur. However, the inhabitants of Arthur’s children’s home have their share of secrets and when the kids become targets of suspicion and prejudice, Linus must decide where his loyalties truly lie and whether he’s willing to give up the life he had for his new friends.
One of my favorite things about this novel was the world-building, which while it certainly had parallels to lots of other stories still managed to feel quite different from anything I’d read before. Linus is a likable character, and I really liked the kids’ powers and how Arthur managed set up a comfortable life for them regardless of how ‘different’ they seemed to be. Despite some conflict, the storyline has an overall cozy feeling and it’s nice to see Linus get a happy ending and finally find people who care about him, ‘his’ people.
However, it’s utterly obvious where the story is going from the very beginning. There’s very little gray area between who’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and everyone who Linus interacts with at the beginning is such an over-the-top asshole that when he has to choose between his old life and his new one with Arthur there’s no question what decision he will (and should) make.
The message about accepting those who are different from you often felt preachy and the characters tended to offer ‘insights’ that felt awkwardly on-the-nose. The characters (except Linus) were also pretty one-dimensional, and I found Phee, Lucy, and Talia to be a little on the annoying side. It felt like one of those instances where I was being a curmudgeon and not becoming nearly as invested in these characters and their idiosyncrasies as the author wanted me to be. I still want to read Under the Whispering Door, and I’d love to see this become a film or TV series of some type. It definitely had its share of charming and engaging qualities, but I think it was a case of having my expectations way too high.