Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (5)
The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune is Umbrella Academy meets Ms. Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. An employee for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY), the humdrum Linus Baker takes to his job with "eyes wide shut," content to be another cog in the wheel of overseeing magical orphans. Never looking too close to what happens to the children once he recommends their orphanages close (for an array of reasons), Linus sighs his way through his life, settled on the idea that happiness is simply not for him.
However, when Linus is summoned to a nerve-wracking meeting with Extremely Upper Management, they send him on a difficult and dangerous job - to oversee an orphanage that nobody on his pay-grade knows about and to report back about the lives of six dangerous magical children and their caretaker, the enigmatic and secretive, Arthur Parnassus.
Determined to keep his relationships professional and his distance... well... distant, Linus settles into his position as DICOMY representative in order to decide if these six dangerous magic children are likely to bring about the end of the world.
Linus, however, reluctantly comes face-to-face with the reality of his position and department. Pushed out of his comfort zone by the charming Arthur and his six strange wards, Linus's trip to the house in the cerulean sea leaves him reeling, overcome by the truth of who the children are and the disparities he's contributed to. Linus is struck by the notion that happiness exists for him, if only he's brave enough to speak up for what he wants and what he knows is right for all magical people, despite the fact that he'll have to remake his life in order to do what's right.
Klune's skill is showcased brilliantly through this novel, where he's able to touch on each topic without trying too hard (or at least it comes across that way). Linus is never pushed over the ledge, never force-fed the truth that he's been avoiding his entire life - the book is a steady trickle toward the final ending more than a stream or a waterfall. Linus wakes up slowly, despite himself, coming awake to the realities that Arthur and the children face every single day.
Unable to keep the blinders on, Linus's revelation comes in pieces, and his epiphany - like the cultivation of the relationships between Linus and the others - trickles in over time, understated and pushed down until he's ready to accept it. Ready to take the children's hands.
Throughout the novel, Linus is his own undoing. He stands in his own way. He can't open his eyes enough to see and accept what is right in front of him. He pushes off his own desires and dreams because he doesn't believe that they will ever be true for him. Even as he eats dinners with the household, goes on adventures with the orphans, comforts the children, is brought in on secrets, and shares moments with Arthur that make him hold his breath - that make him hope again - Linus closes his eyes and shakes it all off to keep from wanting it too much. Stunted after years of contented unhappiness, Linus finds himself facing himself for the very first time.
The House in the Cerulean Sea is stunning. The understated tone of the novel drags you through the rainy days of the early pages - the humdrum day-to-day of Linus's stagnant lifestyle - to the sun-and-smile-filled adventures of Linus's time on the island, where, despite his best attempts, he begins growing too close to the children whose fate lay at his feet.
The children, although unconventional, are a highlight of the novel. Young Lucy, in particular, is a complicated and well-formed character. Through his struggles - and those of the fellow orphans - Linus begins to understand these children in ways he refused to in his decades as a DICOMY worker. Linus's fears and expectations of these dangerous magical children don't match up with what he sees in front of him, and as he spends more time with them, his stereotypes and preconceived notions slowly stop coloring the experience. Compassion builds in Linus - even as he tries to push it down - and through that compassion, he begins to understand his own wrong-doing; he begins to understand that his complacency toward his job and all magical children is more dangerous than any of the wards on the island.
Ultimately, Linus must chose between the life he led before and the life he never thought possible. But in order to make that choice, he has to open his eyes to his role in it all and step up for the first time in his life. For "boring" Linus, "average" Linus, stepping out of his comfort zone is a revolutionary act.
The House in the Cerulean Sea is about acceptance, about responsibility, about facing up to the wrongs you've done others (even if you simply looked away when you should've acted). Linus is a sympathetic character, someone to root for the whole time, and watching him come alive (on a trip that he fears might literally kill him) is an unexpectedly and highly enjoyable part of this novel. Linus - frumpy, grumpy, and bogged down by his life - steps out of the machine and finds a family where he expected fire, brimstone, and the end of all days.
So far, this novel tops the list of books I've read in 2021. Even with 11 months left in the year, it'll be hard to knock it down even a single spot.