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Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea, by TJ Klune

I really, really wanted to love this book as it had been touted as a lovely, heart-warming, feel-good story about found family with a hefty dose of fantasy and magic sprinkled over it - and while I certainly didn't dislike the book, it just falls onto the mediocre table for me. To illustrate what I mean by this, I will be getting rid of it in my end-of-year book donation instead of putting it into my personal library.


Linus Baker is a caseworker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. He goes around visiting orphanages, making sure they are fit for purpose and the magical children living there are well-cared for, and the makes recommendations to Extremely Upper Management. One day he gets sent on a super-classified mission to Marsyas Orphanage, way out on an isolated island in the ocean, where the seven children in residence are particularly secretive because of how rare and magical they are (one of them is the Antichrist), and the headmaster in charge of the orphanage is also super-secret-classified for reasons that are withheld from the reader in a way that very much annoyed me by the time we get to it.


My main criticism of this book is that it reads like a children's book badly adapted into a full-length adult's novel. The writing is, somehow, simultaneously both overly simplistic and overwrought; the plot is predictable and the story drags on for almost 400 pages when it really could have been, max, 250; and the stakes, despite being repeatedly told to us as being unimaginably high, never feel like anything more than small change. The resolutions to what are meant to be the big emotional climaxes come far too easily; and the big reveals that the characters have about themselves and the others in the story do not feel earned so much as they are handed down from on high by the omniscient narrator, with a lot of beating the reader about the head to make sure that they really get the message that what the character is experiencing is A Big Major Epiphany that also carries a Universal Truth about how we should be living our lives. It's all a bit, well, cloying. I would have absolutely loved for there to be one character, even a minor one, who had some shades of nuance to their personalities at all.


I also hate this thing authors do where they introduce a big reveal, tell you it's shocking and changes everything, and then don't tell you what it is for several pages. I think it's a cheap tool that lesser authors use to maintain interest when they don't have the skill to make a story gripping, and it inevitably sets up their own plot device for failure. Nothing ever lives up to that kind of tease - by the time you finally get around to your big reveal, TJ, nothing you actually give me is going to live up to the billing you've given it or what I've managed to work up in my head.


And the situations just all resolve in such neat, pat ways with minimal effort expended by any of the characters. There's one scene that's supposedly pivotal, including a mob of angry villagers, and it all resolves in a couple of pages with a soaring speech given by Linus - and then there are no repercussions for any of the characters and we barrel straight on into the next set piece? I'm sorry, but that's just too pat.


Lastly, there is absolutely no world-building whatsoever. I'm sure some people don't mind this in their fantasy, but you can't bring up a shadow magic government and then not tell me anything else about the rules that govern this magic and the way it interacts with the non-magic people that supposedly inhabit this world. I grant that this is more a me issue than a general readership issue, but I cannot get fully absorbed into a fantasy world if that fantasy world is not explained to me sufficiently. Especially not if you're going to write more books that exist in this universe.


So there you have it, folks - a book that ends up being a smidgen too mediocre for my liking, and I don't think I'll be reading any of the other books that this author puts out that take place in this universe. What a shame.


Happy reading,

Amélie xx


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About

I’m Amélie, I love books and reading, and I also love talking about them.

I’m incredibly lucky to be bilingual, so I read books in both French and English, and will talk about both of those on here – although I will do more in English, since I know that’s probably what the majority of the people who ever find this blog will be interested in!

I also like history, traveling, Shakespeare, coffee, cheese, musicals, Italian Baroque art, the ballet, Mock the Week and Have I Got News For You, flowers, makeup, high heels, and baking. Yes, I’m a walking cliché. I am aware.

Please do tweet at me with any suggestions/book recommendations/thoughts.

In case you’re curious – yes, Pride and Prejudice is my favorite book of all time.