Ronit Ray

I received The House in the Cerulean Sea as a secret santa gift this festive season from someone very dear to me. I wanted to jump on it as soon as possible, and I did. It was pretty good.

This book isn’t particularly novel in concept. Uptight man who is extremely set in his ways one day embarks on an adventure that will change his life forever, bringing him a new outlook on life, new love, and a found family. Pretty straightforward stuff. That said, the execution is pretty good! Every individual character is distinct and rather endearing,which is especially important when there are children involved in a story.

The writing flows quite nicely; it took me about four hours to finish and I didn’t feel the need to put it away at all. It’s quite fun too, and never bogs you down too much. There are no characters who bring the narrative to a grinding halt either. If anything, it feels like I’m reading something written by Roald Dahl, but (hopefully) without Dahl’s raging racism and antisemitism tied to it. This simplicity is, however, its strength and its greatest flaw.

I’m not really sure who this book is for. The writing style seems to indicate that it is aimed at younger audiences, while some of the subject matter seems to be aimed at adults, prescribing a message of tolerance and love. The resulting confusion means it struggles with how seriously it should deal with the subjects it raises. For children and young adults, the simple ideals of tolerance, love and patience in dealing with children, nature vs nurture, and standing up for what is right come together to make a pretty compelling tale.

However, the world that this book is set in is an appropriation of the extremely problematic history of residential schools, a heinous act of cultural genocide where hundreds of thousands of indigenous children were ripped from their homes and families, deprived any link to their culture, and forcefully assimilated into white society in Canada. The effects of this barbarity continue to have a generational effect on those affected, and it isn’t and shouldn’t be taken lightly. A subject so sensitive is already thin ice for a YA author to tread on, but Klune seems to go so far as to suggest the flaw in this practice was one of implementation, not intent. While some “orphanages” mentioned in the book had terrible administrators, clearly all it takes to “solve” the evils of discrimination the children in the story face is for them to find an orphanage where they are treated with love and respect. Instead of suggesting that they should never have been separated from their families in the first place, the book reads as though it is saying the loving environment provided by Arthur Parnassus is what will allow them to smoothly integrate into the “society” that has othered them. Suspension of disbelief is easy, even expected, in a fantasy setting, but it’s not something that goes down well. I get it. In the world he has established, much like ours, these evils have already taken place, and all his characters can do is pave the way for change. To his credit, Klune too mentions in several places that people who have formed these opinions out of fear and malice must correct themselves and be more accepting, and so on and so forth. That said, if even in fiction we are not able to imagine a world where minorities are treated justly without saviors from the other side coming to their rescue, where do we escape to? I have no doubt the author means well, but it’s just… not a road he should have gone down as a privileged white man. This is something he has touched on himself so I know he’s at least trying to come to terms with it. It’s a shame.

I have issues with the last 20% or so of the book as well. I know it’s a fantasy, but somehow, there are four or five conflicts back to back that are solved entirely using the same plot device. The remarkable superpower of… lecturing. I’m not kidding. There’s no issue a grandiose speech cannot solve in this book, and while I’m not big on using terms that the right is fond of bringing into every conversation, I can’t help but feel the book doth virtue-signal too much at times. Not every fantasy book needs a big battle or display of fantastic powers, but it’s a bit underwhelming to be given the tell, don’t show treatment as a reader.

Somehow, within this mess too, there is a wholesome gay romance that I really enjoyed reading. Every scene between Linus and Arthur gives me the warm fuzzies that I needed after a rough month, and I’m quite glad for that. When I say I have mixed feelings about this book, I really do mean it. I would like nothing more to stay on the surface and enjoy the warm hug of love and acceptance, but every now and then I find myself dragged below, where nuance and novelty lie untouched. I’m glad to have read it, but I probably wouldn’t read it again.

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