Sunday 12 July 2020

#CBR12 Book 41: "The House in the Cerulean Sea" by TJ Klune

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 5 stars

#CBR12 Bingo: I Wish (Travelling anywhere right now seems like an utter impossibility, but I would love to be able to hang out on Marsyas Island with its cast of unique residents)

Linus Baker does not live an exciting or interesting life. When he's not visiting orphanages and checking up on children and teens with unusual abilities or magical powers, he sits in his utterly anonymous cubicle and writes detailed and thorough reports. He goes home to his non-descript little house, occasionally exchanges words with his crabby neighbour, takes care of his vicious cat and the only thing he has that brings his life any brightness are his old records, which he listens to after work at night. He doesn't even dream of anything different, he just goes about his routine life, getting a bit older every day.

Then he's given a highly unusual assignment. He's summoned by the Extremely Upper Management at the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, who feel he'd be the perfect person to carry out a very confidential mission for them. He needs to travel (for the first time ever!) to Marsyas Island, to visit the orphanage there and determine whether or not the six children who live there are dangerous, and write his usual comprehensive reports, both on the life in the orphanage and about the enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, the man who runs it. He's not allowed to tell anyone about this assignment (not that he'd have anyone to share the news with) and he has to promise to be as forthright and thorough as he always has been in the past.

Linus packs up the Department's giant book of rules and regulations, a small suitcase of clothes and his anti-social cat and takes the train, from the dreary city where he lives (and it always seems to be raining) to the stunning coastal town of Marsyas, where everything looks like a stunning postcard and it seems like everything is in bright jewel-tone colours. He's met by a rather hostile young lady who escorts him over to the island and drives him to the orphanage. She knows who he works for and doesn't seem to believe that he has the children or the orphanage's best interests at heart.

Once he's at the orphanage, Linus meets the unusual charges who reside there: a gnome who keeps threatening to murder him and bury him in her lush garden; a forest-sprite; a wyvern who collects coins and buttons; a peculiar gelatinous green blob who wants to be a bellhop more than anything in the world; a nervous, young man who turns into a Pomeranian when startled; and last, but not least, the literal Antichrist. He also meets the charismatic and charming Arthur Parnassus, who unlike the woman who drove Linus to the island, doesn't seem all too worried about Linus' reports or the fact that he's there to report back to the Department in Charge of Magical Youth.

For the entirety of the first week, Linus is rather unsettled and worried, but as he spends more time on the island, getting to know its unusual residents, as well as the tensions they face with the residents of the nearest town, he starts to loosen up, opening himself up to new experiences and change. He begins to see that while the children all have abilities that may be considered a threat, they are also still just children, who need love, protection, acceptance, and a family, which Arthur provides for them. Yet Linus comes to understand that Arthur may be too over-protective, as well, and that the only way for the locals and the orphanage to co-exist peacefully, is if there is more openness and understanding between them.

The world is a truly miserable place the moment, even in the parts of Europe where we've successfully managed to flatten the curve enough to more or less go back to the way it was before Covid-19 hit (although everyone is strongly recommended not to travel abroad anywhere unnecessarily, and I'm not sure I'd feel comfortable doing it even if the government said it was safe). Reading can be a wonderful escape from the constant onslaught of depressing news stories, and this book is truly a blessing in dark times. It's clearly going to be on my top 10 best books of the year, and it's such a delightful, magical little story.

This book is all about the need for a proper home, for someone to understand you and support you and nurture the best qualities in you, while curbing your bad impulses. Linus has been alone for so long, living such a dreary life, he doesn't even know what to do with himself when that begins to change. All the children at Marsyas Island are so strange and unusual that they don't fit anywhere else. Some of them have been shuffled from place to place, without any sense of security. Arthur meets them with love and understanding, but clearly also sets firm rules and boundaries for them. He does, of course, also have a history and reasons for acting the way he does, and once his secrets are revealed, it's not surprising that he's wary about letting the children interact more with the wider world.

As well as a lovely story about finding your true home and the blessings of found family, there is a slow-burning romance at the centre of the story. Drab, self-conscious Linus doesn't entirely know what to do with himself around the glamorous Arthur, but it becomes clear that the attraction is mutual, if very slow-burning. There is also a sweet, unexpected secondary romance revealed towards the end of the book. I absolutely loved this book and can already see myself re-reading it for comfort in the years to come. If you're looking for a respite from the horrors of reality right now, it's well worth picking up.

Judging a book by its cover: While I love the cover image, with its pastel skies and beautiful, quirky scenery, I don't recall the orphanage described as perching precariously on a cliff's edge like that, ready to plummet into the ocean the next time a violent storm swept past. I can see that it adds to the fairy tale feel of the story, but would possibly have preferred if the house looked a bit less like a potential death trap.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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