The setting of a school attended by strange children with a gay headmaster combined with a bureaucratic ministry looking after the supernatural may scream “Harry Potter”, but queer author TJ Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea is more Miss Peregrine than Professor McGonagall, with a dash of gay romance and well, the Antichrist thrown in for good measure.
Middle-aged, overweight and moderately unsuccessful case worker at the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, Linus Baker is sent on assignment to assess a special school. The usually sedentary bachelor is forced out across the country to impartially report back on the Marsyas Island Orphanage and its peculiar master Arthur Parnassus.
The orphanage and the children are viewed with suspicion by some of the local townspeople. As Linus slowly gets used to the island’s inhabitants he must fight to remain impartial, to the children and to the charmingly strange Parnassus. But the house has a secret that could ruin this little found family.
Klune’s blend of humour and magic reminded me of Neil Gaiman and Roald Dahl (with maybe a dash of Terry Pratchett), blending the supernatural with the absurd. Baker’s office at DICOMY, run by bureaucratic toadies under the eye of Extremely Upper Management is a grotesque exaggeration of your average corporate open plan space. Baker’s perennially bitter neighbour is a cartoon character from the minds of Laika. And the assortment of children at Marsyas feels ripe for animation – a female gnome, a wyvern, a fairy, a shy boy who turns into a dog, an amorphous blob who dreams of becoming a bellhop, and Lucy (short for Lucifer) the Antichrist.
Watching these innocent, misunderstood children be judged by small-minded locals and even by Linus himself, gives the book a real emotional hook that I wasn’t expecting. While it’s aimed at a Young Adult audience and the subtext is never too far from the surface, Klune’s writing gives it weight. The message of acceptance and understanding (even for the Antichrist) is quite on the nose at times, but it is in Linus’ reaction to it that the story starts to lift. As meek Linus Baker, our pudgy protagonist, stands up in the face of adversity and institutionalised bigotry you can’t help but smile and wipe back a little tear.
It’s no surprise that Lucy is one of the best characters in a book, the child Antichrist, struggling with the way others perceive him and his own temperament. Can you judge a child, even if they’re supposed to grow up to be the personification of evil? It’s nature versus nurture, and Arthur Parnassus refuses to give up on a young boy in need.
Klune has said the book is “a love letter to those who should be allowed to feel small and cared for when the world seems dark” and that’s exactly what he’s delivered.
The House in the Cerulean Sea is a breezy and endearing book, perfect for lovers of light, comedic fantasy. It may play in a well-trodden arena but it does so with an element of charm and joyfulness that feel ripe for adaptation to the screen.
By Chad Armstrong
The House in the Cerulean Sea is available now. Please support you local independent bookseller. Find out more about author TJ Klune on his website.