Published: 16th March 2020
Content warnings: Sexual references, discrimination
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.
When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.
But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.
This is a book which contains all the sweetness of a mountain of candy canes and provides a lovely piece of escapism in the process. Almost everything about it is fun and whimsical, with the aid of a slow burning romance and characters who are mostly either unique or adorable, guaranteeing the reader many smiles and laughs from beginning to end.
The concept is a clever one and helps not only to create a vivid fantastical world, but also to reinforce a number of important and powerful messages. With the exception of some occasional adult humour, it seemed to be primarily aimed at something approaching a middle grade audience, and regularly touched upon the topics of prejudice and discrimination to very strong effect.
Linus Baker is a caseworker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, inspecting homes which care for children who possess magical abilities. Treated with complete indifference by both his colleagues and his next door neighbour Ms. Klapper, he is alone in the world except for his cat, and religiously adheres to all the rules and regulations.
One morning, Linus is unexpectedly called to the offices of Extremely Upper Management, who send him on a special and top secret assignment to the island of Marsyas, to inspect a home that is occupied by a more exceptional group of children. They include a sprite, a wyvern, a female garden gnome, and a six-year-old boy who just happens to be the Antichrist.
Fearful of the children and entirely out of his comfort zone, Linus initially struggles to adapt to life at Marsyas, but over the course of his six-week stay he comes to realise that his feelings were misplaced. With the help of the wise and charismatic supervisor Arthur Parnassus, his blind faith in DICOMY and their rules and regulations steadily starts to waver.
The plot was fast moving, especially as it got closer to the end. The use of the found family trope helped to make it a heartwarming read and the vibrant personalities of each of the children ensured there was rarely a dull moment. It could be said that some of the underlying messages lacked subtlety in the way they were relayed, but then again it was ideal for the target audience.
My main issue was that the change that Linus undergoes from being inherently afraid of the children to embracing who they truly are, comes about very suddenly whereas I was expecting a more gradual progression, which would have felt more natural. Nevertheless, it was good to see Linus really open his eyes and come full circle.
Everything is told in the third person, focusing exclusively on Linus and his experiences. This style really helps to underline his development and how much he changes as a person during his stay on the island. He could be a frustrating character and a bit of a wet blanket, but his ultimately caring nature and manner of speech also make him endearing at times.
There is a lot of positive LGBTQIA+ representation and I really liked the romance element in the sense that it was always present in the story, but never became the centre of attention. It was one of those romances where it was clear to everyone that there is a chemistry but neither party is willing to openly acknowledge the fact, which was in keeping with the tone of the book.
The children were absolute joy to read about. I was intrigued by the prospect of Lucy (short for Lucifer) and he did not disappoint; he often made me laugh with his countless ironic death threats and I took him to my heart. Talia was always entertaining, Sal was very easy to connect with, and Chauncey was also hugely likeable. The most complex character of all though was Arthur, who is a lot more than he first appears.
Just one look at the cover will tell you that this one takes place in a beautiful setting. It is not described in immense detail, but there is a clear juxtaposition between Marsyas and the place where Linus lives, which is rainy and drab as opposed to bright and idyllic. At the same time, the island also seems isolated from the nearby village, whose residents show fear and contempt towards magic.
The writing was engaging and really brought the best out of all the characters while emphasising the core messages. Some things were slightly clichéd, but other aspects were extremely unique so that made for an interesting combination and I was not quite sure what to make of it. As for the ending, it was predictable yet very sweet.
Overall, this was an uplifting, feel-good book that would make a wonderful animated film. It brought good storytelling, memorable characters, and a lot of amusing moments which ensured that I was never made to feel disenchanted. In spite of one or two niggles, there is a great deal of fun to be had here for readers across a variety of age groups.
T.J. Klune used to work as a claims examiner for an insurance company, but is now an award-winning author with most of his books containing positive LGBTQIA+ representation. The House In The Cerulean Sea is almost universally loved with a Goodreads average rating of over 4.5.
That was followed by The Extraordinaries, while his previous novel Into This River I Drown won the Lambda Literary Award.
A lovely book which is perfect for anyone who is looking for some escapism or positive representation, in spite of a predictable plot. The children definitely helped to make it memorable too!
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5