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: “Every Heart A Doorway”

Wayward Children, #1: Every Heart A Doorway

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: April 5, 2016

Genre: Fantasy

*Winner of: Hugo Award for Best Novella 2017, Nebula Award for Best Novella 2016, Locus Award for Best Novella 2017, ALA Alex Award 2017

            …the wanting. You want to go back, and so you hold on to the habits you learned while you were traveling, because it’s better than admitting the journey’s over. We don’t teach you how to dwell. We also don’t teach you how to forget. We teach you how to move on, (3: Birds of a Feather). 

            Anyone who is a fan of Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, C.S. Lewis, Philip Pullman, and authors who write similar stories MUST READ THIS SERIES!!! The Wayward Children books are a portal fantasy series which asks the question: what happens when those who are “spirited away” return to our world? Seanan McGuire answers this question in her series. While it is obvious which stories inspired and influenced the author, the originality will draw readers into this series. It mentions how a combination of Time and Desire can lead to a portal to another world. And, there are many worlds which we are familiar with whether or not we realize it. They are allusions to other portal fantasy and adventure books and readers have to recall all of them in order to comprehend the series. 

            While there are several characters in this book—the students and the (resident) teachers are “travelers”—the protagonist is Nancy, the newest arrival at Eleanor West’s Home For Wayward Children: No Solicitation, No Visitors, No Quests. She is 17-years-old and was “gone” for six months in the Halls of the Dead before the Lord of the Dead returned Nancy to our world so that she can “Be Sure” before making her choice to stay there forever. It’s been “seven weeks, four days” and counting, and Nancy is waiting for her Door to reappear. Nancy is like many of the students at the school, she wants to return Home, but knows there is a slim chance of it happening. Nancy’s parents send her to this school so she can “get better,” but Nancy learns quickly that the school is a haven for other children like her who want nothing more than to return to their Homes. There’s Sumi—Nancy’s roommate—who traveled to Confection and cannot sit still long enough to hold a conversation. Kade—a relative of Eleanor’s—who was kicked out of Fairyland and is in charge of managing everyone’s “preferred” wardrobe. Jacqueline and Jillian—known as Jack and Jill—are identical twins whose adventures in the Moors is something out of a black-and-white horror movie. And, Christopher who traveled to a world of “happy, dancing skeletons” similar to the holiday, Día de los Muertos. The adults in charge consist of Eleanor West, the headmistress, whose Door is still open; and, Lundy, the school’s therapist, who is aging in reverse as punishment for breaking the rules of the High Logic, High Wicked world she “visited.” Unlike Eleanor, Lundy knows she can never return to her Home, and so she projects her bitterness on to the students. All of the residents at the school want to go Home, but they all have to settle on having to learn how to readapt in our world. And yet, many of the students refuse to believe their Doors are lost to them forever. 

            There are 2 plots in Every Heart A Doorway. The first is learning how the school operates and how Eleanor recruits students while keeping them safe. The second is the construction of the “Great Compass.” Eleanor, Lundy and Kade spend their free time compiling a book of the descriptions and the characteristics of each world. The most common “directions” are: Nonsense, Virtue, Logic and Wicked; then, there are several “minor” compass directions such as Rhyme and Linearity. These plots are continuous throughout the series, and it is fascinating to learn how the school is managed, and it’s intriguing to learn which worlds are “connected” to one another. However, it is the subplots that keep the readers engaged, and there are two of them. The first concerns the murders of some of the school’s residents. Who is killing them and why? The second subplot follows the worlds each traveler visited and the “stereotypes” surrounding each one. For example, who’s to decide on whether or not a world of rainbows is “good” over the world with skeleton people? All worlds whether or not they exist in reality contain both beauty and danger.

            The narrative in this story follow’s Nancy’s point-of-view; but, she does not remain as the only P.O.V. character in this story. There are times when the P.O.V. switches to other characters, even for a paragraph. So, this narration is presented using 3rd person limited omniscience. Due to the style of narration, the protagonist—and, the other P.O.V. characters—are reliable narrators. Not to mention, readers get the characters’ streams-of-consciousness throughout the story. It should be mentioned whenever the characters are talking about their Homes—both their worlds and their families—they are as memories, NOT flashbacks! This is because the characters are describing their experiences as they remember them; and, some of those recollections are unreliable because they are from their perspectives, which are biased. 

            The style Seanan McGuire presents is a twist on portal and quest fantasies. Farah Mendlesohn defines “Portal-Quest Fantasy” as: “In both portal and quest fantasies, a character leaves her familiar surroundings and passes through a portal into an unknown place. Although portal fantasies do not ‘have’ to be quest fantasies the overwhelming majority are,” (Mendlesohn, 1). McGuire asks the question: what happens if the ‘hero’ or the ‘traveler’ returns to our world? On the one hand, Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland goes back to Wonderland in Through the Looking Glass before returning to our world for the rest of her life. On the other hand, Dorothy from the Oz series traveled to Oz so often, she, her aunt and her uncle, and Toto move there permanently. So, why did one stay in our world while the other one didn’t? Would Alice have stayed in Wonderland if she was given a choice? And, the characters from McGuire’s story, what would they give to return Home? The author asks these questions as these children return from their travels changed, and are suffering—NOT from PTSD—but from struggling to return to their mundane existence. The allusions to all of the stories and their authors mentioned are informative and valid. Instead of the “familiar” fantasy stories and fairy tales we believe we know, readers receive the dark lore and the styles from other variants of folklore and fantasy stories. And, it’s the reality check fantasy readers didn’t know they needed. The mood in Every Heart A Doorway is a haven for all of the travelers. The tone in this story is how each character struggles to accept their current predicament. Some have accepted it and others continue to search for their Doors.  

            The appeal for Every Heart A Doorway were and continue to be multitudinous. Not only did this novella win several awards—including the Hugo and the Nebula—but also gain numerous readers who were introduced to the author and her other books, including myself! This book and the other ones in the Wayward Children series belong in the speculative fiction canon, and have lasting appeal because of the characters and their stories. The fact this continues to be an ongoing series will have fans rereading this book over and over again. In fact, Tor.com announced fans and readers can expect the series to have at least 4 more books, bringing the current total to 10 books!

            Every Heart A Doorway is an amazing and unique look into how diversified fantasy is based on all of the worlds the characters have traveled to, and why all of the authors who wrote similar stories believed their characters were better off returning whence they came from instead of remaining where they were the happiest. Fans of both traditional and twisted fantasy stories should read this book. This novella will have you searching for your Door.

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

                                                            List of Works Cited

Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Wesleyan, 2008.