This novel is such a great book club pick, especially for groups who like their magic surrounded by a big warm hug. The book is delightful and inviting, but it isn’t simplistic. There’s a lot of complexity to the characters and the plot drivers in this book. Our The House in the Cerulean Sea book club questions will help you uncover that complexity and get your group talking.
When Gail Carriger blurbed the book, she said it was like when “1984 meets The Umbrella Academy with a pinch of Douglas Adams thrown in.” For reference, Adams was the author of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Carriger nailed it by recognizing some key themes in The House in the Cerulean Sea, which include: institutional overreach, hard to control magic, fear of the other, found family and no small dose of the absurd.
Start your book discussion with the synopsis below. Does it accurately reflect your experience of the book? Then transition to our selected reviews and 10 book club questions for The House in the Cerulean Sea.
Unfortunately this book doesn’t appear to be part of a series, but we’ve also got three suggestions for books like The House in the Cerulean Sea that will help you scratch a similar itch.
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The House in the Cerulean Sea Synopsis
The House in the Cerulean Sea, by TJ Klune
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.
An enchanting story, masterfully told, The House in the Cerulean Sea is about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place—and realizing that family is yours.
The House in the Cerulean Sea Book Club Questions
- This book runs on an emotional engine, capitalizing on the six major emotions of fear, anger, disgust, surprise, happiness and sadness. Were you feeling the feels while reading the book? Which scenes or characters elicited the most emotional response from you?
- The book’s prose is descriptive, in a very wry way. For instance, in the first chapter, Klune introduces us to Ms. Jenkins of the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY).
First he describes her office decor- “The walls were lined with terrible paintings of lemurs in various poses”. And then he describes her person- “as was her want, she appeared to have applied her makeup rather liberally in the dark without benefit of a mirror”.
How did you find the setting and character descriptions? Did you have a favorite line?
- Linus goes on both a physical and an emotional journey when he visits the school. He was always diligent in his work, but he was also very emotionally stoppered up. What was it about the school, the kids and Arthur that cracked Linus open?
- DICOMY exercises some serious institutional overreach. The creepy slogans give you insight into their real purpose:
“We are happiest when we listen to those in charge”, “A quiet child is a healthy mind”, “Who needs magic when you have your imagination” and “See something, say something. Registration helps everyone”.
Talk about some other books and movies that feature dictatorial overreach or magical suppression. (Hint: 1984, the movie Brazil, Dickens, Children of Men, City of Brass series, The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Spellbreaker, The Magician’s Guild, Children of Blood and Bone.)
- Talk about Sal’s poem. What was your gut reaction to it? How does it represent the themes of the book?
“I am but paper. Brittle and thin. I am held up to the sun, and it shines right through me.
I get written on, and I can never be used again. These scratches are a history. They’re a story. They tell things for others to read, but they only see the words, and not what the words are written upon.
I am but paper, and though there are many like me, none are exactly the same.
I am parched parchment. I have lines. I have holes.
Get me wet, and I melt. Light me on fire, and I burn. Take me in hardened hands, and I crumple. I tear.
I am but paper. Brittle and thin.”
- There are some ways in which Marsyas is a completely normal boarding school, such as having dinner together and talking about what you learned that day. And then there are things going on that definitely aren’t on your local school board’s approved curriculum. Discuss what you found perfectly to be normal about the school, and then share a few ways in which the school was charting its own course.
- What were you expecting of Arthur? Did you believe that he was simply a headmaster, or did you suspect that he had powers? What did you think about his big reveal?
- “Change often starts with the smallest of whispers. Like-minded people building it up to a roar.” Linus clearly changes in the book and it seems that the villagers are coming along as well. Could the events of this book start a ripple of change in DICOMY and Extremely Upper Management?
- Which of the students did you relate to the most? Or rather, which of them would you like to be for a day?
Here’s the list: Talia (gnome), Theodore (wyvern), Phee (forest sprite), Sal (shape shifting Pomeranian), Chauncey (a gelatinous blob?), Lucy (the Anti-Christ, but we aren’t supposed to call him that).
- When JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter, she conceived of Dumbledore as a gay character. And yet, his sexual orientation was never overtly addressed in the book. TJ Klune is queer (interview on that here), and he believes that “it’s important—- now more than ever—- to have accurate, positive, queer representation in stories”. Have you been reading more diversely or sought out more queer characters or authors?
Selected reviews for The House in the Cerulean Sea
“It flooded every corner of my mind with delight and warmth and made me feel reassured and nourished in channels of my heart which had stood scraped dry for weeks. It’s a feeling I wish I could put in a bottle to carry it with me through the dark.”
“This book made me cry over a button, so clearly it’s a five star read.”
“It’s a shamelessly sweet fairytale that is nice to take on in the moment of feeling down. It’s basically a day of self-care in a book form, complete with massage and a glass of rosé chasing a cup of hot cocoa and a cloudless day in the beach where the weather always stays a perfect 78 degrees…Was it a perfect book for me? Not really. I like just a bit more bite in my stories and a bit less saccharine feelings”
“While there was a bundle of good messages at its core (don’t be ashamed of who you are, don’t judge others by outward appearance, change can happen) the story itself struck me as aggressively shallow. What I mean by this was that for all the neat or quirky ideas in the book there was little to no exploration of them.”
3 Books Like The House in the Cerulean Sea
If you like the academic boarding school setting, then be sure to check out our list of 20 great books about magical schools or our discussion guide for Fourth Wing (which features a deadly dragon academy). For some more found family and kinda dangerous kids, try Nothing to See Here.
The Amulet of Samarkand, Jonathan Stroud
This book is the first in the Bartimaeus series, so if you like it, there are two more coming at you. This is a good read-alike for The House in the Cerulean Sea if you are keen for more themes of magical suppression and hierarchical power dynamics.
Nathaniel is a boy magician-in-training, sold to the government by his birth parents at the age of five and sent to live as an apprentice to a master. His master is a cold, condescending mid-level magician in a Britain where powerful magicians rule all. Nathaniel seeks to avenge his situation by summoning the 5,000 year old Djinn Bartimaeus. So, naturally, things go sideways.
The book is smart, engaging and full of good humor.
Akata Witch, Nnedi Okorafor
Sunny is a Nigerian-American whose family has just moved back to Nigeria. Because she’s American, and an albino, she struggles to fit in. But once she befriends Orlu and Chichi, she comes to learn that she has magical power. She joins a community of the elusive Leopard People, where they help you turn your worst defect into your greatest asset (magic-wise).
Sunny has a loving family, so she isn’t an orphan of the Cerulean sea. But in her world, magic has been forced underground and there are a lot of secrets being kept by everyone in the story.
Skippy Dies, Paul Murray
Skippy Dies doesn’t have magical beings. But it does feature lonely kids who are trying to find their place in the world while attending boarding school.
Right up front, you know that 14 year old Skippy is dead. The main focus of the book is showing what lead up up to his death and to explore its effect on the school, his friends and family. Following what happened is both funny and very heartbreaking. It’s “…a heartfelt, hilarious portrait of the pain, joy, and occasional beauty of adolescence, and a tragic depiction of a world always happy to sacrifice its weakest members.”
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