Why You Need to Read: “The House in the Cerulean Sea”

The House in the Cerulean Sea

By: T.J. Klune

Published: March 17, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

*Winner of the 2021 ALA Alex Award*

            It was set up a hill on a cliff overlooking the ocean. It looked as if it were at least a hundred years old. It was made of brick and had a large turret of all things set right in the middle of the roof. The side of the house facing Linus was covered in green ivy, growing around multiple white window frames. He thought he could see the outline of a gazebo set off next to the house and wondered if there was a garden. He would like that very much. He could walk through it, smelling the salt in the air and—

            He shook his head. He wasn’t here for such things. There would be no time for frivolities. He had a job to do, and he was going to do it right, (FIVE). 

            It’s amazing how a reader comes across a book. In this case, after receiving an eARC, I received a print copy of this book from a giveaway. At the time of this book’s release, the reviews were all about how great and how beautiful the story is, and how everyone should read this book. And, when I started reading the book, I realized the description didn’t do it justice to the story as a whole. The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune is a poignant story about family and identity.

            The protagonist is Linus Baker, a middle-aged caseworker in the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (best described as social services for “magical” children). He is the stereotypical vapid and lonesome adult who lives alone—with his cat, Calliope—and focuses on his job, in which he is very good at. In fact, Linus is so good at his job, he receives a summons from Extremely Upper Management to take part in a highly classified assignment: investigate an orphanage on the distant island, Marsyas; report and determine whether or not it should remain open; and, check the well-being of 6 “magically dangerous” children and their caretaker, Arthur Parnassus. It doesn’t sound too bad, until Linus reads the files for each child. That is when Linus realizes this assignment is unlike the other ones he’s had before, and why the files are classified. Linus reads up on the files of the children: Lucy, Talia, Theodore, Chauncey, Sal and Phee. But, he waits to read Arthur’s file because Linus believes it isn’t relevant to the assignment. In addition to the children and Arthur, there is Zoë Chapelwhite, the “Caretaker of Marsyas Island,” and the mentor to one of the children. Each of the children are as unique as their files make them out to be, and Linus is able to see them all as children and NOT the magical beings they are. While Linus has no issues with writing up his reports and bonding with the children, he is puzzled by Arthur’s demeanor, especially when it comes to the humans who reside on the island. Arthur is a complex character, but it is through him that Linus develops as both a character and an individual throughout the story. 

            Although the plot appears to be cliché, it is less straightforward and more complex than presented in the first chapter. In this world, humans and magical beings coexist in society, but they remain segregated from each other. The obvious reason for this is the fear between both groups. Humans fear what they don’t know, and the magical beings fear for their safety (from humans). Linus believes he’s investigating the Marsyas Orphanage because of his ability to “do things by the book.” However, Linus learns quickly about the true intentions of Extremely Upper Management and of Arthur’s reasons for becoming the guardian for these particular children. There are two subplots in this book. The first one surrounds foster care. Just about everyone has heard of (or knows someone who went through or works within) the foster care system—which, includes orphanages and children’s homes—and, the numerous stories—both true and false—about the ongoings that occur within them. This includes visits from caseworkers and social workers. I’m not saying that this book provides “accurate” information—I wouldn’t know—but, there is enough familiarity in this book that brings out the reality within the fantasy. The second subplot involves trauma and fear, and how it is handled. Approximately, half of the characters are dealing with their personal fears and traumas, and they all deal with them in their own way. However, there are positive and negative methods to overcome them, which are explored in this story. These subplots are necessary because they provide more depth and development to both the plot and the characters.

            The narrative follows Linus’ point-of-view in the present, and is told in 3rd person limited narration. This means that the readers know what is happening from Linus’ experiences, and what is told to him by the other characters. This use of narration is essential for the story because of Linus’ role as a case worker. He must be able to understand the children, Zoë and Arthur while maintaining his identity as a human; especially, when Linus is told of the traumas the children have gone through. This makes Linus a reliable narrator. 

            The style T.J. Klune uses for The House in the Cerulean Sea is first and foremost a commentary on stereotypes, especially those placed on children. Ironically, this book was released during the year the world was forced to observe how they operated, and how their societal practices led to social turmoil. In addition, it is children who are taught how the world will perceive them based on these societal norms and practices; and, how it can get better, or worse (usually worse), as they reach adulthood. Earlier, I mentioned foster care systems, but there are several allusions to magical beings across folklore and speculative fiction, including the “smaller details” to what some of us suspected about those magical beings. The mood in this book is paradise. Linus arrives on the island and he is awed instantly by its beauty: the weather, the colors, and the appeal. However, each literary paradise contains its own underlining issue. The tone in this book is the dismantlement of stereotypes and appearances. All of the characters have something within themselves they need to overcome so that they can continue living their lives. 

            The appeal for The House in the Cerulean Sea have been immensely positive. Several readers and critics have had nothing but great things to say about this book. In addition, this novel was named “One of the Best (SFF) Books” of 2020 by everyone from Goodreads to Amazon. This book is a great addition to the speculative fiction canon and it should be read by all fans of the genre, especially for its lighter tone. Recently, this book became one of the recipients of the American Library Association’s (a.k.a. ALA) 2021 Alex Award. And, I’m going to say that this is the first of many accolades this book will receive. 

            The House in the Cerulean Sea is the magical book readers and fans didn’t know they needed. T.J. Klune presents a story about stereotypes surrounding identity, youth, family and appearances; and, it provides a bit of magic to it in order to present it as realistic, and it works. If you are looking for a fantasy story that will make you smile, then look no further. 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

Why You Need to Read: “The Starless Sea”

The Starless Sea

By: Erin Morgenstern

Published: November 5, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Urban Fantasy/Magic Realism

            Only the singular section of “Sweet Sorrows” is about him, though pages are missing, upon close inspection there are numerous vacancies along the spine. The text comes back to the pirate and the girl again but the rest is disjointed, it feels incomplete. Much of it resolves around an underground library. No, not a library, a book-centric fantasia…(Book I: Sweet Sorrows).

            I have a confession to make: I haven’t read The Night Circus, yet. Yes, it’s shocking that I’m reviewing The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern before reading her impressive debut novel. All I will say is this, I was more curious about the author’s follow-up novel than her debut novel and I made the effort to read the recent book before the previous one. I didn’t want to write a review in which I make the same argument that has been done to both Harper Lee and Jeff Eugenides. So, without further comparison or explanation, here is my review of The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern’s homage to New York City and libraries around the world.  

            There are three protagonists in this novel. The first is Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a graduate student who is studying Emerging Media Studies at a university in Vermont. He is spending his semester break reading his favorite books alongside classic books. During another trip to the university library, he comes across a book titled, Sweet Sorrows, which has no clear hint as to what the story is about. After reading a section which refers to a moment in Zachary’s life with the description: “The boy is the son of the fortune-teller,” the book goes missing from his possession. Zachary decides to investigate the book’s origins, the library it originally came from, and the opportunity he missed all those years ago. The second protagonist is Dorian, a member of one of the organizations who knows about Zachary, the book—Sweet Sorrows, and the Starless Sea. One thing which is a mystery (at first) is for whom is Dorian working for, what his goals are, and why he keeps switching allegiances. Last, is Mirabel, a resident of one of the Harbors of the Starless Sea, who assists Zachary on his “quest” to rescue Dorian and to save the Starless Sea from destruction. Other characters who are relevant to the story are: the Keeper—the keeper of the Harbor, Kat—Zachary’s classmate from the university, Allegra—a woman who wishes to seek the destruction of the Starless Sea, and Madam Love Rawlins—Zachary’s mother, who is a fortune teller. All of these characters assist with the development of the protagonists through their knowledge of the Starless Sea, and the knowledge of the protagonists’ roles in saving the library. Their love or hate of each other will determine how they will get through the dilemma they’re in together. 

            The narrative switches between the characters, the settings (especially time) and the sequence. It might start off as confusing, but the breaks and the change in narrative allows the reader to know what each character is experiencing in relation to the plot. The narrative has six sequences that follow the characters on their journey as they learn about the Starless Sea, their connection to it, and the ongoings of the world beyond the Harbors and the Starless Sea (our world). These parts are the titles of the books written about and read by all of the characters. Due to this sort of narration, all of the POVs are told in 3rd person omniscient with each character being a reliable narrator. This is because their streams-of-consciousness and points-of-view allow readers to understand the reasons for their actions within the story. And, while the jump in sequence between the past and the present start off confusing, the readers will get used to this narration and will find it easy to follow. 

            The style Erin Morgernstern uses in The Starless Sea is specialized, but not typical. The idea of there being a story (or several stories) within a story is nothing new; and, it shouldn’t be new to fantasy readers. The concept of different forms of literature (i.e. prose and excerpts) written within one book is not new. Yet, the way the author writes her story using those practices are what makes her story so captivating to read. Add to this the description of New York City and its notable landmarks, and allusions to various books and pop culture references presents The Starless Sea as a creative tribute to Manhattan and to nerds everywhere! And, as a former grad student who studied emerging media studies, all of the references to “the Hero’s Quest” and video games was a nice touch to an inner group of the nerd community (Thank You)! The mood in this story is one of urgency. The urgency of meeting someone, the urgency of saving something, and the urgency of value are essential to the story. The tone is the meaning of that urgency for a group of individuals who are connected to each other, but have different ways of dealing and handling with an urgency. Not everyone is going to react the same way to an urgency, and that is essential to know for this book.

            The Starless Sea was one of the most anticipated novels of 2019, and it was on my list of best speculative fiction books of 2019. While it received praise from NPR, Amazon, and The New York Times, there have been some mixed reviews from readers. Without getting too deep into those criticisms, I knew that this book would be different from The Night Circus, and the style and the format of the book did not “interrupt” my reading of this book. Readers who’ve read books similar to The Sisters of the Winter Wood will not be surprised by the changing sequence of narration. Readers who’ve read books similar to Gods of Jade and Shadow should be familiar with the actual places used as setting—in which you can follow along with a map. And, readers who’ve enjoyed The Ten Thousand Doors of January—or, any portal fantasy story—should know the idea of Doors and other worlds. The Starless Sea stands apart from the books mentioned because of the story the author wrote for her readers. It seems to me that many readers were so caught up with comparing this book to the author’s previous one that they failed to recognize and to enjoy the story they were reading. The Starless Sea is about the love for people who share one’s interests and the love shared amongst a group of individuals for a landmark; it is a story about love and what someone will do for it.  

            The Starless Sea is the long-awaited follow-up book by Erin Morgenstern. The story consists of well-developed characters, elements of mystery and love all within a magical library that could exist below Manhattan’s subway system. This is a beautiful story meant for fans of portal fantasies and urban fantasies. Whether or not you’ve read The Night Circus should not dictate on reading The Starless Sea, you’re the one missing out on a great story.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5).