2nd July, 2020

Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune (Tor Books)

This is a good example of a book that has been hyped extensively on social media: for its beautiful cover, its general premise, etc. However, for me this is also a book that doesn't live up to the hype and which is, in fact, quite problematic in several aspects. I really wanted to love The House in the Cerulean Sea - I mean, the title alone is swoon worthy - but that is unfortunately not what happened. But first, a quick synopsis: 

A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret.

Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he's given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.

But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.

So what is it that I didn't like about Klune's book? It was quite a few things actually, all of which added up to me almost throwing the book across the room at some point. Don't worry, I didn't! No books were harmed in any way in the process of reading but this novel left me so damn frustrated, it's not even funny anymore. Warning: The following contains mild spoilers. 

1. From the description I was expecting a story in the tradition of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. I was expecting interesting and multi-dimensional characters, some of whom would be a bit flawed. The characters in Klune's novel are all quirky and whimsical and definitely not generic in their appearance, BUT they are all so damn perfect! I know this is something that other reviewers have already criticised about the book and I couldn't agree more. Everybody on the island has a good heart. Some characters have a sort of "don't touch this" attitude at first, but are ultimately... well, perfect. The kids were supposed to be charming but I only found them boring and simply couldn't get invested. The whole thing is way to black and white for my taste - the ministry people are bad as are the villagers, while Arthur and his kids are the purely good guys, despite having the Antichrist among them. 

2. It's pretty clear from the early chapters onwards how the story is going to unfurl. Linus is looking for a family and - spoiler alert - he ends up getting one. There is something mysterious about Arthur and it turns out he is quite special. Why that particular "peculiarity" had to be in the book, I can only guess, as it doesn't do much for the overall story arc. So yes, this is a book that is very straightforward about questioning preconceived notions and becoming an (even) better person. It's an ancient trope and still could have been done well if the plot hadn't been too full of platitudes, too sweet, too cloying.  

3. Logic! Oh my goodness. This is something that was driving me insane. There is this whole dramatic "danger" of the evil village people threatening the children and their home and you're thinking "Wow, this could really go downhill. Why does nobody interfere?" And then it turns out that the mayor of the village is in fact quite partial to Arthur and the children. This is obviously a person with power so why the heck didn't she appear earlier and why didn't she use her influence? The whole conflict between village and island thus seems extremely constructed and unnecessary. 

4. Preachy tone: Klune's novel is quite preachy in the beginning about the importance of acceptance, inclusion and equality. Then, however, you have a passage where Linus reads Sal's poem and kind of appropriates the text when he has a sort of epiphany about himself (while Sal remains quite a static character even though he had the most potential). Somehow, this scene made me cringe. I'm fairly sure it was supposed to be geared toward the "you're not just the sum of your parts" idea and meant to illustrate that everyone is equal... but it didn't. It pushes the most vulnerable character further into the background and turns him into a mere tool for the main character's self discovery. But maybe that is just me. Is it just me? Let me know what you think in the comments. :)

This all sounds rather harsh, I know, but the book simply felt slapped together for me with its stereotypical tropes, its focus on telling over showing and its one-dimensional characters. T.J. Klune isn't a bad writer - far from it - his prose as such is wonderful, but this particular story could have done with a bit more developing/outlining/editing. I've heard that his other novels are great, so I will definitely give him another chance and read one of those. 

Rating: 1.5/5 stars

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