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WesternSFA


The House in the Cerulean Sea
by TJ Klune
Tor, $18.99 TPB, 396pp
Published: December 2020

This is a case where the lovely and charming cover art sucked me in; a fact that now delights me.  A charmingly hopeful tale of family, love and loneliness.

Linus Baker is a well-meaning, albeit naïve, bureaucrat working for the state agency DICOMY which oversees the orphanages for magical children.  DICOMY also oversees magical adults but that isn’t the concern of this story.  When ‘accidents’ happen in the orphanages (an ever-present risk with young untrained magical children), Linus is sent in to investigate. It is his job to determine if the state-run orphanage is managing their charges appropriately or if the ‘accident’ happened due to faulty care of the children.  Linus truly cares about the children; he just doesn’t always see anything past the end of his nose.

He lives quietly with his evil-dispositioned cat, Calliope, next door to the world’s most intrusive neighbor…ever.  He goes to work in the same office next to the same coworkers and never asks himself if anything could ever be different.  He accepts, blindly perhaps, that his situation is simply the same as everyone else.  He accepts that he is a balding, paunchy middle-aged lonely uninteresting man who shouldn’t expect anything from life…which could explain the evil-tempered cat.

Extremely Upper Management unexpectedly calls on Linus to investigate an orphanage and their concern seems disproportionately ….interested.  But it may be warranted; after all, one of the charges appears to be the son of Satan.  But that isn’t their only concern; it just takes Linus quite a while to discern the true interest. So off he goes for an entire month prompting him to take Calliope with him. 

At first look, the orphanage appears to be mostly normal with the exception that Linus notices the children have an unbecomingly familiar way of talking of and to the Headmaster, Mr. Parnassus.  The Headmaster, himself, becomes a source of discomfort to Linus; the man just seems to defy understanding or description.  There’s also the disconcerting way Calliope seems to make herself at home and – could it be – she’s happy?  But it is, of course, the child, Lucy, who makes poor Linus most discombobulated.  Lucy is a nickname for Lucifer and he is only six-years-old.  But to Linus’ delight, he finds the other children quite adorable and lovable from the gnome to the wyvern to the sprite to the shape-shifter and even to Chauncey who quite defies description but longs to be the world’s best bellhop.  Well, they become adorable and lovable once he becomes a bit more accustomed to their strangeness.

In addition to the children and the disconcertingly attractive Mr. Parnussus, there is also Ms. Chapelwhite who seems to run the orphanage and turns out to be much more than that.  A month seems scarcely enough time to familiarize himself with each child and evaluate the competency of the elusive Mr. Parnussus; much less the effect of Ms. Chapelwhite, on top of which, he discovers the neighboring town, while having been carefully indoctrinated into the culture of tolerance and acceptance, is anything but.

He gradually develops a relationship with each child and a grudging acceptance from the mysterious Ms. Chapelwhite; especially after he insists the children should not be sequestered in the orphanage simply because the townsfolk are uncomfortable around them.  The trip to town for ice cream was both an eye-opener for Linus as well as inhabitants of the town.  It appears that the main point of the story is to understand the nature of Lucy and whether he poses a definite threat; but that isn’t what the story is about, at all.  I would love to tell you but then I’d rob you of the beauty of that discovery.

This story is a quiet observation of several contemporary issues:  should the state mandate tolerance and acceptance of those who might be a bit different?  And, if so, would it be successful?  Whose responsibility is it to allow different types of people to grow up as they will – society or just the people around them?  Is it possible that people would find their own self-acceptance if they only knew they weren’t so different?

Linus’ journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance is paired with his discovery that anyone can be lovable if their nature is accepted.  And once such a person knows themself, it’s childs play to help others with the same discoveries.  He also discovers that self-acceptance isn’t all there is; we all live in a community and the community itself needs to learn the same lesson before everyone can gain their full potential and be happy.

The tone of a story tends to color my discussion and I see that I have become a bit verbose.  It isn’t that the story is verbose; it’s more that the nature of the characters is a bit formal in the descriptions and it makes me feel I should sit up straight and practice my manners.  It’s beautifully crafted and the author is very adroit at guiding the reader and Linus down a planned path.

It’s a lovely story with a significant message and it ought to be required reading in middle school.  ~~ Catherine Book

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