Finding Your Voice in the Din

In our lives, we learn that there are many things that we cannot easily understand, we cannot fathom quite quickly. These things are so out of the ordinary that, without any inkling, we begin to fear them. We do not bother enough to try and understand what these things. Because of the fear that grips us, we come up with our own ideas, or own logic, no matter how skewed it is. What is worse is that we turn this fear into deceit, into hatred. This lack of understanding turns into a weapon that pierces the heart of even the innocent. History also showed how this deceit has adversely affected our landscape. Our lack of understanding for things out of the ordinary has turned us against one another.

In his latest novel, The House in the Cerulean Sea, Lambda Award-winning writer TJ Klune regals his readers with his own magical twist into this theme. The narrative begins with Linus Baker, a mundane, unimpressive man. He is a caseworker employed by the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. Single and in his early 40s, he is subservient to the wishes of all who are in authority. However, he can claim to being an objective caseworker. He does not let prejudice cloud his vision nor influence his thoughts. In all his cases, he fosters an independence of the mind.

Because of this objectivity, he was personally handpicked by the Extremely Upper Management for an important but confidential assignment. He was tasked to investigate an orphanage located in the far-flung Marsyas Island. The Marsyas Island Orphanage’s master, Arthur Parnassus, has been sending reports bereft of details despite the relative importance of his task. Linus Baker, on the other hand, is very verbose and does not spare any details when writing his report. He was, to a fault, the perfect man for the assignment. Plus, he has an unnatural perversion to the Rules and Regulations.

“We get trapped in our own little bubbles, and even though the world is a wide and mysterious place, our bubbles keep us safe from that. To our detriment. But it’s so easy because there’s something soothing about routine. Day in and day out, it’s always the same. When we’re shaken from that, when that bubble bursts, it can be hard to understand all that we’ve missed.”

~ TJ Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

Linus was thrown into the assignment with not much information to go on. In fact, the dossier that the Extremely Upper Management has provided him skipped the most important details of the orphanage’s denizens. To say that Linus was shocked was an understatement. He was greeted by a 256-year-old female gnome named Talia who threatened to bury him in her blossoming garden. Talia, however, was just start. The usually composed Linus, dressed formally in his office slacks and tie, was sent tail spinning towards a whirlpool he never thought he would find himself sucked into. Don’t be fooled. It was all lighthearted in the end.

Although it wasn’t marketed as such, the story mostly takes the form of a young adult fiction, bordering on children’s fiction. Nonetheless, it was packed with seminal themes. Early on, it wasn’t surprising that Linus was revealed to be a homosexual whose nosy neighbor keeps prodding on his personal space, fervently asking him to marry her son. The novel had several references to homosexuality, but it was in the context of the adult characters. But the novel does not digress into a trite exploration of familiar and ubiquitous themes and subjects such as sexuality, gender, and sexual orientation.

At its heart, The House in the Cerulean Sea is a timely narrative about embracing one’s identity and unique qualities. Each of us has something quirky or different that distinguishes us from the crowd. It makes us stand out. This is what the children of Marsyas Island Orphanage. The novel incessantly puts the spotlight on Lucifer, or Lucy, a six-year-old boy who was tagged as the “Anti-Christ” because he was the son of Satan. All six wards of the orphanage have all experienced prejudice and even abuse despite their relatively young ages. Some of them, like Sal, was passed around like a ball in a game whose rules he was not even aware of, nor have any inkling on. Arthur, their master, has taken the role of their guardian, to keep them safe from the prejudices and frowning faces of the public.

The crux of it is that society is not always willing to embrace our differences. The things that make us unique – the color of our skin, our sexuality, or birthmark – are reduced into subjects of gossip, of debates. Worse, it becomes the subject of hatred. Society pushes us out because it cannot fit us into a box, just like the denizens of the neighboring village. Despite being paid by the government for their silence, the villagers wanted to kick out the children because they fear them and what they can do. As has been underscored repeatedly in the novel, people fear what they do not understand. Their fear snowballed into deceit.

“Humanity is so weird. If we’re not laughing, we’re crying or running for our lives because monsters are trying to eat us. And they don’t even have to be real monsters. They could be the ones we make up in our heads. Don’t you think that’s weird?”

~ TJ Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

What the villagers do not realize is that their prejudice is hurting the children. Yes, the children were cognizant of their unique and supernatural qualities, but their innocence was forcefully being dragged from them by the intense gaze of the people who would not take the time to understand them. One too many times, Arthur kept using the underlining that “they are still children”, hence, they should be protected and nurtured so that “they they may grow and shape the world to make it a better place”. Not even Arthur, Linus, or the village leader Helen, however, can protect them from the stares they elicit when they walk in public.

All is not lost, however. Whilst there was a proliferation of judgmental people like Marty and Norman, not all hope is lost. There were also people like Merle and Helen who try to enlighten themselves by learning and understanding the uniqueness of the children of the house in the cerulean sea. What Arthur hopes is that change would take place and that the children would be accepted by society, not feared by it. Merle and Helen are small steps, but it takes small steps all for greater changes to be ushered in.

Klune also subtly underscored how institutions and bureaucracy are being utilized to create virtual divides. The special children are being segregated from the crowd and are shipped to “special” schools catering to “their kind”. This is not something new as, historically, schools and the entire educational system were used as tools to segregate people of color. Unregulated, such temples of education can be places of abuse, or what would others say as “acts of discipline”. This can also be attributed to the corruption of the institutions which were tasked to oversee them.

“See something. Say something,” was a mantra that permeated all throughout the story. TJ Klune certainly saw something so he, rather than saying it, wrote something magical. By waving his literary wand, he conjured a narrative that explored profound subjects whilst sustaining the reader’s interest. Interwoven into the narrative are random facts about magical creatures such as sprites, wyverns, gnomes, and phoenixes. Although they are perceived as “magical”, they were treated by Klune as normal human beings.

“I am but paper. Brittle and thin. I am held up to the sun, and it shines right through me. I get written on, and I can never be used again. These scratches are a history. They’re a story. They tell things for others to read, but they only see the words, and not what the words are written upon. I am but paper, and though there are many like me, none are exactly the same. I am parched parchment. I have lines. I have holes. Get me wet, and I melt. Light me on fire, and I burn. Take me in hardened hands, and I crumple. I tear. I am but paper. Brittle and thin.”

~ TJ Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

One of the novel’s biggest achievements is the relationship and kinship between the children. There were several tender moments between them; at one point, Lucy referred to Sal as his brother even though Sal was with them the shortest amount of time. The House in the Cerulean Sea, however, was not without its flaws. Klune made his own blunders. What weighed down on the novel was the love story. It was a little underdeveloped, even a little rushed. The repetitions to underscore the underlying premises was bothersome. Yes, we fear what we don’t understand, but one mention is enough as it was already woven into the various situations and scenes portrayed in the novel.

The overall voice of the novel was a little too juvenile. However, The House in the Cerulean Sea is still an entertaining read. It may have flaws, but it is still a heartwarming story about outcasts and finding the definitions of home in a world that can be harsh and, at worse, threatening. The children gave color to the story. The sea of difference in their personalities made up for a riveting read. In fact, Linus found himself in at least one memorable scene with each child where the child would demonstrate his or her own capabilities and uniqueness. These are also tender moments for they showed their vulnerabilities to someone unfamiliar to them. For all its faults, The House in the Cerulean Sea  was an impressionable and memorable read.

Rating

71%

Characters (30%) – 22%
Plot (30%) – 21%
Writing (25%) – 17%
Overall Impact (15%) – 11%

I honestly wouldn’t count in TJ Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea had I not encountered positive and glowing reviews on the book from fellow book bloggers. I have never heard of him or any of his works before. I wasn’t also too keen on what I perceived to be a rather puerile book, judging from the cover alone (although I did end up loving the fancy cover). I managed to overcome my ambivalence and what unfolded before me was a heartwarming story about finding the meaning of family and love, and uncovering the warmth of a hearth that will thaw the cold wrapping one’s heart. Whilst I loved all the children and the bond between them, the novel was weighed down by its flaws which affected my overall appreciation of the story. Nevertheless, it was still a worthwhile read.

Book Specs

Author: TJ Klune
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 272
Genre: Fantasy

Synopsis

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

Linus Baker is a by-the-book caseworker in the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records for company. But his quiet life is about to change.

Linus is summoned by Extremely Upper Management and given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to an orphanage on a distant island and determine whether six dangerous magical children are so dangerous, in fact, that they’re likely to bring about the end of days.

When Linus arrives at that strangest of islands he’s greeted by a series of mysterious figures, the most mysterious of which is Arthur Parnassus, the master of the orphanage. As Linus and Arthur grow closer, Linus discovers the master would do anything to keep the children safe, even if it means the world has to burn. Or worse, his secret comes to light.

The House in the Cerulean Sea is an enchanting love story, masterfully told, about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place – and realizing that family is yours.

About the Author

TJ Klune is an American novelist. He notably won the Lambda Literary Award for his novel Into This River I Drown. Before taking on writing as a full-time career, he worked as a claims examiner for an insurance company. Among his works include John and Jackie, Green Creek series, and The Exraordinaries. His latest novel, The House on the Cerulean Sea, was published in 2020.

Being queer himself, TJ believes it’s important—now more than ever—to have accurate, positive, queer representation in stories. You an also visit his website A Fistful of Awesome.