Wish You Were Here: A Review of The House in The Cerulean Sea
Michael Aaron Harrington
There is a scene early on in TJ Klune’s sweet, quirky, and wonderful book The House in the Cerulean Sea where the main character—Linus Baker, a fortysomething, overweight mouse of a man—looks at one of the few possessions he maintains at work, a mouse pad, while nervously fidgeting in the presence of his sadistic boss Ms. Jenkins:
He wouldn’t need a brown box. The only things that belonged to him were the clothes on his back and the mouse pad, a faded picture of a white sandy beach and the bluest ocean in the world. Across the top was the legend DON’T YOU WISH YOU WERE HERE?
Linus’s unspoken answer is “Yes. Daily.”
Now more than ever, that’s my answer too. Let me explain.
First, however, I’ll get this out of the way: I did not expect to like this book. I had looked at it once and thought it might be a good read for my preteen daughter based on its resemblance to Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, but I hadn’t given it a thought to read myself, and after considering it my adult mind did what it always does—put it in cold storage.
Then two things happened. One, my wife’s book club selected the book to read, which brought the novel front and center in my attention. I was interested and amused that they were reading something I had (wrongly) categorized as a mere children’s book. I was curious what they’d end up thinking about the book (not a surprise—they loved it).
The second thing that happened was Wyngraf.
Previous to learning about Wyngraf on the Whetstone Amateur Magazine of Sword and Sorcery Discord channel, I hadn’t heard of cozy or backpack fantasy. Sure, I knew about cozy mysteries, had enjoyed a little Murder, She Wrote or Matlock and the occasional Masterpiece Theatre. And though I loved Tolkien, having grown up with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I had long since graduated—or so I thought—to more “adult fantasy.” Authors like Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, H. P. Lovecraft and Michael Moorcock. I was a serious connoisseur of sword and sorcery, dark tales, gritty noir detective and adventure stories, after all. I didn’t have time or inclination to read something I deemed childish. Oh the humanity!
What a misguided fool I was.
Not only is cozy and backpack fantasy not childish, it’s more human in some ways, with all its magical creatures and settings, than some other media I like to consume. I had been sensing, though I didn’t have words or feelings for it, that all the grimdark, all the crime fiction, all the horror was getting too much to bear. This was magnified between the years of 2017 and 2022. I think you can guess why.
When I discovered Wyngraf and cozy I rediscovered wonder and hope. It’s not that there wasn’t struggle—yes, that was there. But also resiliency, and love, and humanity. Things I found I misplaced somewhere along my journey and desperately missed. I found myself feeling like when I had when I was first discovering fantasy: full of awe.
So how does this relate to The House in the Cerulean Sea?
Well, TJ Klune’s book was listed in the Appendix C section of the Wyngraf site. For those who aren’t D&D nerds, Appendix C is a nod to the famous Appendix N that was located in the first Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide by Gary Gygax. In Appendix N, Gygax listed books and authors that had an influence on the creation of the game. Appendix N also happens to be a list of some of the greatest hits of the fantasy and sword and sorcery genres, and is a great place to (re)discover their founding authors.
Since The House in the Cerulean Sea was already sort of top of my mind, I thought I would give the book a read as part of my exploration into cozy fantasy. I had already read the first issue of Wyngraf and gone back and re-read Tolkien’s Smith of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham.
As you may have guessed, I found the book enchanting. It has the gothic and absurdist flares of Lemony Snicket, blended with Trenton Lee Stewart, along with a Harry Potter wizardy-bureaucratic feel in the form of The Department in Charge of Magical Youth and Extremely Upper Management. At the same time, Klune blends this with more sinister dystopian overtones by way of Orwell’s 1984—”See Something, Say Something.”
Altogether some terrific world building that appealed to my darker sensibilities.
But then Klune caught me off guard, veering in a completely different direction while still managing to keep those sinister overtones simmering in the background.
The obvious ties to fantasy remain. Linus Baker, a caseworker who has worked his whole life to wall off his emotions, to stay hidden—presumably to protect himself from being hurt—is (to his dismay) sent out on a special assignment to assess the Marsyas Island orphanage’s magical children and the orphanage’s headmaster. The children include a gnome, a forest sprite, a lycanthrope, a sea monster, as well as the Anti-Christ. (Yes, you read that correctly: the Anti-Christ.) However, Linus finds out that Extremely Upper Management has a secret agenda to his visit and has withheld important information. Linus must overcome his fear of each of the children’s powers in order to assess the orphanage, and eventually work out what Extremely Upper Management have been hiding.
However, the novel isn’t, of course, about the magic. The fantasy is dressing and metaphor for Klune’s real themes: inclusion, tolerance, love, and innocence.
And while I got sometimes annoyed with the hamhandedness of Klune’s writing, it was nonetheless endearing and landed quite well.
Is it obvious that the magical children are stand-ins for children of various races and beliefs? Yes. Is it obvious that the intolerance and hate, surveillance and complicity in the story are stand-ins for our culture at large? Yes.
I forgive that, though.
In the end, Linus’s journey toward feeling comfortable in his own skin, as well as his journey to love—along with the message of kindness, patience, hope, and perseverance—works spectacularly. It brought to mind things, events, and regrets in my own life.
I found myself thinking about how I regretted saying words I didn’t mean because I was afraid and reacted in anger. How so many times I chose to withdraw instead of risking being hurt, and missing out on being loved and held. How I was unwittingly cruel to my parents, my spouse, my children, because of my own hangups and insecurities.
I realized that sometimes I (and I bet you do, too) become so inured to what is right in front of me, so desensitized to all the vitriol, propaganda, and evil, that I need to be led by the nose.
What Klune does is beautiful. He makes us care for these fictional, magical fantasy characters and see them as real children, real people. And that makes it all the more poignant, urgent and tragic.
As Linus Baker finds out in the end, all it takes is one person to make a stand, find their voice and begin to change the world around them. It may be scary, but we aren’t alone.
At the end of the book, Linus muses:
Sometimes, he thought to himself in a house in a cerulean sea, you were able to choose the life you wanted. And if you were of the lucky sort, sometimes that life chose you back.
Do I wish I was here?
Hell yes. I wish that for everyone.
Read this book. Read it with all your heart and find the color you thought had gone. You will be glad you did.
Michael Aaron Harrington is the author of “The Little Soldier.” His website is harringtonwrites.com and he tweets at @writemah.