TJ Klune manages to weave the mundane and fantastical together in this heartwarming novel. Linus Baker is a caseworker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY), which registers and tracks magical children (and later adults with the Department in Charge of Magical Adults – DICOMA). He visits orphanages of magical children to make sure they are being well-run, and when he’s not out on field assignments, he’s one of hundreds of drudges toiling away at desks in DICOMY. He has no life to speak of, his life is dreary, and he is lonely, though he may not fully realize that last part.
Linus is clearly compassionate and empathetic. He is invested in the wellbeing of the children he observes and wants what is best for them. He also has some fixed ideas about right and wrong and following rules, which shows up in his honest, objective, and thorough reports, and he doesn’t ask questions about what happens to the children or orphanages after he submits his reports because he believes people will do the right thing. It’s these qualities that single him at to Extreme Upper Management as the ideal caseworker to visit the Marsyas Orphanage and its highly classified magical children.
Linus is to spend a month at the orphanage on Marsyas Island and observe the 6 children (a gnome, a sprite, a child whose species is unknown, a were-Pomeranian, a wyvern, and the literal antichrist) and the master of the orphanage, Arther Parnassus. Most of these characters, as well as the island sprite Zoe, who helps out with the children, are fairly well fleshed out (the wyvern gets less character development, but he’s a cute little guy that I really enjoyed). They help draw Linus out of his shell and realize what his life has been missing, and Linus helps them realize they don’t have to be so isolated. Most of these characters seems to grow and become stronger as a result of their coming into each other’s lives.
There’s bigotry in the novel – a lot of prejudice against magical children because they aren’t understood and are therefore feared and hated. In response, there are some speeches in the novel that came across as a bit over the top and sort of “after school message-y,” – Klune isn’t subtle, but I don’t really hold that against him. It serves a purpose and leaves the book in a hopeful place.