Until the vaccine comes, there’s this

Big5+ Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

r/suggestmeabook: I want a satisfying and optimistic fantasy tale of a man finding out what really matters to him.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 393

Publisher: Tor

From the publisher: Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

This was the book I didn’t know I needed. It touches on themes that have been painful this year, but redeems them in a way that restores hope in humanity without ever being glib or ignoring the ugliness that can be part of the equation.

This year has fairly vibrated with a sense of powerlessness. Can I, just one person, do anything about all of the big issues that are facing all of us? What can I do about institutional racism, or the pushback against LGBQTIA+ people that runs from casual verbal cruelty to outsized paranoia over what bathroom to use? How can I keep me and mine safe from COVID-19 when people are pretending it doesn’t exist? Then there’s the tick-tick-tick of climate change in the background.

“It’s not only this village, Mr. Baker. Just because you don’t experience prejudice in your everyday doesn’t stop it from existing for the rest of us.”

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

Into all that mess comes this sweet and positive tale that doesn’t pretend change is easy or fast, but asserts strongly that change is possible. Not only is it possible, it’s something that each individual can contribute to. Linus Baker, the everyman protagonist of the tale in a close third narrative, does his moral best within the context of his limited powers, but doesn’t really look past his immediate surroundings to see what kind of consequences there might be, the quintessential well-meaning soul who unintentionally contributes to the status quo. His life is upended by a special assignment to the eponymous house.

He’d accepted long ago that some people, no matter how good their heart was or how much love they had to give, would always be alone. It was their lot in life, and Linus had figured out, at the age of twenty-seven, that it seemed to be that way for him.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

Self-deprecating, isolated, but dedicated to his job because of a fundamental conviction that children deserve to be safe and cared for, he’s easy to root for. His character growth is fundamental to the story, and it occurs incrementally and believably. I generally hate it when characters have sudden changes of heart because of one particular dramatic incident; those can help, but my life’s experience tells me that people must already be in motion for a drama to move them to a new position.

Then there are all the other quirky and charming characters, as well as the people you love to hate. T.J. Klune has a gift for sketching memorable characters quickly, so small roles such as Ms. Bubblegum, J-Bone, Marty, the train conductor, and the post office guy are almost as memorable as the main cast. There’s the yearning-for-purpose Chauncey, spiders-in-the-brain Lucy, singing-to-the-earth Phee, nibbling-to-communicate Theodore, I-want-to-be-round Talia, and future poet laureate Sal. These children are all lovable, but I must confess some favoritism for Chauncey and Sal.

Many considered them to be nuisances, and for a long time, they were hunted down, their heads used as trophies, their skin made into fashionable shoes. It wasn’t until laws were enacted protecting all magical creatures that the barbaric acts ceased, but by then, it’d almost been too late, especially in the face of empirical evidence that wyverns were capable of emotionally complex reasoning that rivaled even humans.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

Arthur Parnassus, however, doesn’t appear to play favorites. The father figure and teacher who heads up the school Linus must investigate is the guy we’d have all wanted to have our backs as students. However, he’s probably the least well-developed character in the book, but that I can forgive that because 1. we’re seeing him through Linus’s obscured vision and 2. it’s necessary for plot reasons.

He was as fresh-faced as the young people who came into DICOMY with their shiny degrees and ideas about how things should be done rather than how they actually were. They quickly learned to fall into line. Idealism had no place in government work.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

Then there are all the characters who only appear in a scene or two, and yet they are memorable. Klune has a knack of adding just the right details to sketch them quickly and convincingly.

She was a stern woman, hair pulled back so severely that it brought her unibrow up to the middle of her forehead. He wondered every now and then if she had ever smiled in her life. He thought not. Ms. Jenkins was a dour woman with the disposition of an angry snake.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

The bit that made it hard for me get get going on the book was the music (although, to be fair, once I got past the first third of the book, I could not put it down). It mostly put me in mind of the first time I watched A Knight’s Tale. As a hardcore history buff (or antiquarian, if you want to go with my history prof’s label), I was startled when Queen showed up at a tourney:

Yes, in the purely fictional world (I’d thought) of The House in the Cerulean Sea, all of a sudden The Everly Brothers’s “All I Have to Do Is Dream” is playing in this other reality. Of course, fictional music would not have had the same emotional impact as “Beyond the Sea” or “You Send Me,” so it made a certain kind of sense, but it was a bit jarring, just like “We Will Rock You” showing up in what I thought was a period film. (Yes, my expectations for A Knight’s Tale were all wrong.) On balance, I see why Klune made that choice, but I wish there had been another way to get the effect he wanted.

As Bobby Darin sang about watching ships from golden sands, Linus moved through the dream, fingers tracing along the books on the table. He barely glanced down at the titles, entranced by the telltale scratch of a record spinning.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

The other jarring note was the use of the exact phrase that was born of 9/11: “See something. Say something.” I, too, found this formulation disturbing in our world, and to hear it echoed in the book brought me out of the fantasy world Klune had made. Perhaps it was to point to the thematic links between the worlds, but it felt like a moment where he was jumping up and down and saying “Look what I’m saying about the US,” taking focus from the story to the author and his message.

Hate is loud, but I think you’ll learn it’s because it’s only a few people shouting, desperate to be heard.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

All that aside, at the core of this book is a question man has debated for centuries (and probably woman as well, but we didn’t get recorded much until recently): Are we born evil or made that way? Can we rise above our genetic/hereditary/nature? Can people change? This is not just a philosophical jaunt. The side you take on the debate seems to have endless ramifications about how you treat crime, poverty, drugs, and a slew of other questions with practical political applications. I believe, on some level, it is the answer to that question that lies behind all of the current conflict in the US, because how you treat humanity at large (as opposed to the folks you actually know), really depends on the answer to that question.

Linus has avoided this question about the nature of humanity and is forced to confront it, if only implicitly. Despite the two types of intrusions where our realities overlap, I loved this book. And I learned that buttons are awesome. Nope, not going to explain; read the book and know the power of a button.


Train ride to the precipice

The Salt Fields by Stacy D. Flood

r/suggestmeabook: I want a novella-length character study of a Black man during his transition from a life full of tragedy in South Carolina to an uncertain future up north.

Post WWII

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 128

Publisher: Lanternfish Press

Publication date: 3/9/2021

Advance Review Copy courtesy of Edelweiss

From the publisher: On the day that Minister Peters boards a train from South Carolina heading north, he has nothing left but ghosts: the ghost of his murdered wife, the ghost of his drowned daughter, the ghosts of his father and his grandmother and the people who disappeared from his town without trace or explanation.

This beautifully written novella is a close study of the interior life of a man who has had to compartmentalize all his various tragedies. Some are particular to him; some are sadly endemic to being a southern Black man in 1947.

Some things we lose should be irreplaceable, and the thorns of the past or the future should always pierce the skin.

Stacy D Flood, The Salt Fields

If you want plot, there’s not going to be much for you; it’s a ridealong with the protagonist on a train ride from his lifelong home along the South Carolina coast toward the promised(ish) land of the north. He’s not even sure of his destination—just away from the ghosts that haunt his days.

I was longing to pass the time until the train until the train until the train actually moved us away, as if, at any moment, a cop or spirit or storm could come and trap us here in a pile of bruises or thick mud or regret.

Stacy D Flood, The Salt Fields

The book resonates with a regret that Minister can’t quite articulate, although his observations of the world around him are acute. This is a rational man trying to deal with an irrational world, and his coping style is one of dissociation, to the detriment of himself and those he loves.

Mass graves didn’t surprise us. We believed in horror, and horrible men.

Stacy D Flood, The Salt Fields

The style is elliptical at times, where the meanings of the interactions must be guessed at. Minister will tell you, in this first person account, of his interactions, of the facts, of what may be seen, but not always what is meant.

But I suspected it wasn’t just one thing, one argument, one slight, one memory, one word. We’re human beings. It rarely is one thing.

Stacy D Flood, The Salt Fields

The other characters are deftly drawn: the disillusioned former soldier, the hyperactive man-of-the-world, and the elegant woman with an agenda. The protagonist only spends a short time with them, but they affect the remainder of his life in a way that’s surprising, given the tragedies that he endured before he met them.

An affecting, wistful, and tragic story of a life of alienation and of the consequences of choice, The Salt Fields may haunt you with its ghosts.