CW: internalized fat shaming, references to child abuse (off the page), xenophobia, depictions of anxiety
There are so, so many romance tropes in the world to choose from that, simply stated, picking a favorite is a losing battle. BUT. If hard-pressed to pick one, having to go with “the prickly rules-y one falls for the unbuttoned kindly rebel” wouldn’t be the worst possible decision. Add to that a heaping helpful of adorable precocious children you’ll actually like, an island home that seems to have a magic all it’s own, and several lessons in appreciation over tolerance, keeping secrets, and when to make good trouble, and you’ll walk away with the absolutely darling The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.
Linus is a caseworker with DICOMY (the Department In Charge of Magical Youth, naturally) who, in all his life, has never found much use for breaking the rules. In fact, far the opposite — Linus might just believe that all of life’s greatest quandaries and quagmires can be solved with the proper application of the Rules and Regulations. Which is exactly the kind of thinking that Upper Management loves, which is why they assign Linus the top-secret and highly important job of checking out one Mr. Arthur Parnassus, who runs Marsyas Island Orphanage and has, for the past several years, been on DICOMY radar. The house, as well as the children who live there and the enigmatic Mr. Parnassus, are a top-secret assignment, and Linus is sent out the door with a folder of incomplete paperwork and the warning to be honest — completely honest — in his reports.
Thus begins Linus’s journey not just to the island, but towards the understanding that not all rules are worth upholding, that the limits of compassion and concern shouldn’t be drawn by a third party, that there is such a thing as good trouble.
I will admit that I knew very little about this book going into it beyond the bare facts: it’s about a ‘magical’ orphanage, and at its heart is a soft, gentle queer romance that’s low-heat but sweet enough to leave your teeth aching for days. And honestly, I think that’s the best way to go into this book — as blind as possible, letting the secrets of Marsyas Island Orphanage unfold for you as they do for Linus.
So, without spoiling the magic of the book, there are a few more things I want to touch on before I end with yelling at you to go buy this book, immediately.
The first is the characters of Arthur and Linus. Like I said at the top, “stolid rules follower falls for enigmatic rule breaker” is one of my favorite relationship tropes, and is the lovely scaffolding on which the relationship at the heart of this book is built. But, as with all good characters, there’s a great deal more to it than that. Arthur, for all his willingness to push back against systems and institutions, especially those that deserve pushing back against, there is an undercurrent of fear that controls his actions, meaning that some of the rules he does follow are the ones he should be pushing back against most earnestly.
Linus, on the other hand, learns throughout the book that the rules laid out for him by the Department and Extremely Upper Management aren’t the sterile, neutral guidelines he’d long been thinking. That the kernel of bravery that comes with questions, with sticking up for what you know to be right even when it’s technically wrong, is one that needs nurturing, not shuttering. The fact that Linus is in Arthur’s life to investigate whether he’s following the rules for the orphanage as determined by the Department sets up the central tension of the book, outlines a time limit for Linus’s stay, and forces them both to answer questions about what the future looks like after Linus’s visit, both for themselves and the children at the orphanage.
And speaking of the children, I don’t particularly want to tell you about them, because learning their stories and relationships is one of the truest joys of the book. But if you’re wary of plot-moppet children, never fear. Every one of the charges at Marsyas Island Orphanage jumps off the page, pulling new and beautiful truths out of Linus while serving up a heaping serving of sass. If you like the dynamic of one character railing, plotting, giving grandiose speeches and proclamations, while another character pats them lightly on the hand and says “yes, dear”, well. There’s enough of that here to keep you happy for a good long while.
I do want to say that even this warm, fuzzy, comfort blanket of a book wasn’t without its moments of pause, for me. There is a whole heap of internalized fat-shaming that Linus deals with throughout the book, as well as some ‘harmless’ comments about his weight from the children, which mostly seem to be resolved when Arthur tells Linus he doesn’t much mind, anyway. I loved having an overweight main character, and as a fat person, I can understand the habit to over-fatten ourselves in our minds in comparison to the way others see us, however. For Linus, his sense of weight is tied to his sense of self-worth in a way that’s not unpacked or directly addressed as much as I would’ve liked to see, considering it’s a point that comes up several times throughout the book.
I also think it would be fair to say that there are a couple of moments, especially towards the end of the book, when some of the larger ramifications of Linus’s actions in respect to his job weren’t, for me, examined as thoroughly as they should have been — mainly, the question of what happens to children at the Orphanages that are shut down and what role tacit role DICOMY plays in turning a blind eye to institutional abuse and neglect.
A book whose plot revolves around children who are currently caught in the system, these are worthy questions to explore, and they are certainly hinted at throughout the epilogue, but I wish there had been more than hints, that we had seen that particular aspect of the plotline play out a little more clearly.
We’ve reached the portion of this review where, as promised, I’m going to yell at you to go pick up The House in the Cerulean Sea. It’s a balm of a book for a world that’s still turned completely upside down, and where it looks like things might be staying that way for a while. It will make you laugh, make you pause to remember the magic of moments and people and the inevitable right-timings of life. And, most of all, it’s a book that will make you feel at home again.