3.5 out of 5 stars
I feel that I should have loved this book, but I only liked it.
It didn’t take much for The House in the Cerulean Sea to sell itself to me: Barnes & Noble front table positioning, great cover quotes, accolades like “quirky” and “simply perfect.” Alas, my excitement was a bit oversold.
Linus Baker is a middle-aged drone of a man in a slightly fantastic world, where magical beings are mixed in with humans. This scares the government into registering, monitoring, and creating bias. Linus works for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, and his job is to monitor orphanages, to make sure they follow procedure. One site visit sends him to Marsyas Island, a tiny paradise where kindly Arthur oversees the care of some wacky, misunderstood, and potentially very dangerous magical youth. Despite his continued resistance, Linus finds himself at first taken in by, and then fitting in with, what is essentially The Mighty Ducks of Hogwarts.
The comparisons don’t stop there. This story has shades of so many others, but not enough of itself to truly stand out for me. It’s part X-Men, part Annie, part The Omen, without being as good as any of those. (I often find this annoying. See: Furyborn review.) Linus is a regular fish, out of water in a weird place; everyone else is a weird fish, in the water of a regular place. The kids are adorable (Chauncy!), the humor is whimsical. It’s also predictable: Nearby townspeople hate and fear the magical youth because it’s ingrained in their society, except for the one nice rebel person who, of course, also happens to be in charge. As a result, the stakes feel very low throughout this book. Never for a page did I think Linus would report anything bad back to headquarters, that the local bumpkins would act on their bias, or that anything at all would happen except exactly what does. And that outcome is satisfying enough, even enjoyable. But if it’s “1984 meets The Umbrella Academy with a pinch of Douglas Adams thrown in,” as one cover quote would have you believe, then it manages to weaken all those ingredients by mixing.
The House in the Cerulean Sea features very nice messages about acceptance, community, perspective, and intuition. It would make a great kids book, with its gentle lesson-teaching and view-expanding. That’s not what I expect when Publisher’s Weekly calls something “One of the Most Anticipated Books of fillinthedate“, but maybe that’s the point. As depicted on the mousepad on Linus’ coldly impersonal desk at his soul-sucking real world office, there’s a house somewhere, by a cerulean sea. The caption reads, “Don’t you wish you were here?”
Yeah, I guess I do.