• The Good: The sweetest story about seeing past appearances, found families, and love
  • The Bad: Low stakes
  • The Literary: Subverting the tropes of a normal protagonist, Linus is portly, fussy, queer, and middle-aged

Linus Baker is a gray, overweight, single man. At forty, he spends his free time listening to old records and talking to his cat. He takes great pride in his job as a case worker at the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, where he travels around England to inspect government-sanctioned orphanages. Linus is so unemotional about his cases that Extremely Upper Management gives him a new classified assignment to inspect the most remote and dangerous orphanage yet.

This is hands-down one of the sweetest, most charming book I’ve read in years. I love that Linus is a middle-aged man, with exacting, almost OCD standards, despite working as a nearly unknown cog in the machine of this company for over 15 years. He thinks he’s happy, or at least as happy as he deserves to be. It’s not surprising that during his new assignment, he learns otherwise.

Upon traveling to Marsyas Island, Linus is struck by the beauty and bold colors around him, especially the ocean. The orphanage in question only shelters six children: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the literal Antichrist. As Linus gets to know the children, his fears subside. They’re all cute and quirky, and even though several of them threaten him with death everyday in their little kid voices. Their playful personalities carry much of the book.

Heading the orphanage is the enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, fiercely protective of his charges and suspicious of Linus. But as they spend more time together, Arthur helps Linus to see the children as people and not as paperwork. Despite their parentage and species, all children deserve a safe place to grow up, without assumptions of who they’re expected to become. Linus eventually develops feelings for Arthur, so there’s a hint of romance in there for you.

When Linus decides to take the children off the island on a field trip to the nearby town, he encounters prejudice and fear from the locals that shocks him. He realizes that just because he doesn’t experience discrimination, that doesn’t stop it from existing for the children everyday. The only real stakes of the story is if Linus’ final report will convince the Department in Charge of Magical Youth to keep the orphanage open, which never really feels in question. Instead of a suspenseful conflict, the book chooses focus on Linus’ arc and the small steps in the fight for tolerance and inclusivity.

I hate to compare books against one another. Each story should stand on its own. But this has much in common with The Wayward Children series in which special children live in orphanages and sometimes travel to magical lands. They are both charming, but the latter is delightful and imaginative in its world-building, with a child’s perspective that holds more possibilities. With that said, I feel reassured and protected every time I open The House in the Cerulean Sea.

Highly recommended for anyone ready for a sweet wholesome story with a happily ever after!