Savage Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by T. J. Clune

Where have I been? I have been in the Land of Not Braining Good. Which is unfortunately not where the words live. So there have not been so many of them. I hope to return properly soon, but in the meantime I haven’t done a savage review for a while, so here’s one for The House in the Cerulean Sea.

OK so I’m not the target audience for this book. This is one for the queer teenagers who worry that they’ll never find love or acceptance. I probably would have liked it more when I was that teenager. These days I am a cynical 40-year-old with a shrivelled soul and no faith in human nature. Not the target audience.

But I can only give the review that comes out of that shrivelled and blackened soul, so here we go.

Very brief summary of the premise: 40 year old perpetually single gay man is a social worker who inspects government-run orphanages for kids who have magical abilities or are in some way supernatural. He gets sent on assignment for a month to an orphanage for particularly odd/scary magical children. The children warm his heart. The guy who runs the place gives him pantsfeelings. The organisation he works for is clearly a bit sinister. What will he do?

This book is too long. I see you and sympathise, fellow overwriter, but damn. You could cut the wordcount by a third and have the same story. Those extra words aren’t setting the scene or revealing character. They’re hammering home a message. Or a few messages, about being different, finding acceptance, right and wrong, belonging, family and so on. Underneath all of which is “hey there, queer teenager who’s worried about these things. I see you. It’s going to be okay.” So it’s all pretty wholesome.

And when I say “hammering home” I mean smashing that message into your face with a wrecking ball. And when I say “wholesome” I mean it’s the most relentlessly wholesome book I’ve ever read. The dialogue is about one third story-related and two-thirds morally uplifting clichés. No opportunity is wasted to tell us that we can choose what kind of person to be, home is the people you choose, yadayada. Basically the same five things, each repeated a thousand times.

I have no problem with these messages. In fact, I think they’re extremely important, which is why I have a problem with books that make them feel like trite platitudes. If you want to include a moral message in a novel, that’s great. But it’s better shown than told. It’s definitely better not to spell it out in the dialogue. If you spell it out in the dialogue in much the same way every single time there IS dialogue, I will be a) nauseous and b) convinced that you’re really angling for this thing to become the feelgood movie of the summer.

If you think I’m exaggerating about how cliché-ridden this book is, check out Goodreads’ selection of quotes from it.

Even the symbolism is just rammed into this thing without decorum. I get it. Beyond the Sea is an important song in this book. And one that has been stuck in my head for the entire duration of reading it because it gets mentioned over and over. Damn teenage readers have probably never heard it and are spared this fate. (I actually like the song, but I’ve had enough now. Especially as I can’t remember half the lyrics.)

There’s also one of my bugbears here. I was going to leave it out as a spoiler but it’s in the blurb and it comes up early so sod it. One kid in the orphanage is the Antichrist and the son of Satan himself. He was probably added to arouse curiosity in the reader, but he doesn’t do the same in the MC. The MC lives in a world with magical people, so that’s normal to him. But there’s no indication that he even knows Satan is real until he finds out about the kid, and then he really doesn’t have any questions about Satan, God, Heaven, Hell, which religion if any is right, the meaning of life… anything. Only the question of whether the Antichrist kid is destined to be evil or if he can be wholesomely redeemed with platitudes.

I’d have questions. A lot of questions.

The plot structure was formulaic, but it was a YA fantasy romance so that’s excusable. I was quite entertained by the MC and love interest being in their 40s though. That is a bold choice in a YA novel, but I think it worked. Mostly. I don’t know that I’ve ever met a 40-year-old who’d be so utterly clueless about being attracted to another person of the same age, but it’s for younger readers so that’s also excusable. The writing was fine. It didn’t blow me away but it was perfectly competent and probably the right kind of level and tone for the intended audience. I get why it’s been successful. It’s a very commercially viable book. The kids are charming and often funny. They come across as middle-aged curmudgeons, while the adults come across as lovestruck 13-year-olds confused by their sudden pantsfeelings.

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