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Review: Under the Whispering Door - T.J. Klune

Genre: Fantasy

Published: Tor Publishing, September 2021 My Rating: 3.5/5 stars, rounded up because many people will love this a lot more than I did.

“The first time you share tea, you are a stranger. The second time you share tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share tea, you become family.”

What better time to read a novel that reads so much like A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens than in the weeks leading up to Christmas. T.J. Klune seems to be in luck with me picking up his books at the right place and time. After his wonderfully cosy feel-good novel The House in the Cerulean Sea, Under the Whispering Door was one of my most anticipated novels of this year. Although I can’t really say it let me down, it didn’t live up to my anticipation either. We follow Wallace Price, a cold and calculating lawyer with a heart of stone, on the day said heart gives out. Yet the afterlife isn’t quite what Wallace expected it to be: no heaven or hell awaits him, but a charming but inexperienced reaper, who plucks him away from his own funeral and takes him to a remote Teahouse. There he meets Hugo, a Ferryman who helps spirits like him cross over, and the other unlikely ghosts that inhabit the teahouse. As Wallace reflects on his selfish ways in life, he finds friendship, compassion and love like he never had before his death.

What I loved:

In many ways, The Whispering Door is a true spiritual sequel to The Cerulean Sea. It has all the charm, the quirks and the cosiness that make reading this such an almost universal joy. Both are filled with lovable characters, comforting settings and a dash of humour that really works for me personally. These are the kind of books you can’t help but read with a smile on your face. We all need such stories from time to time, and when I was first introduced to them with The Cerulean Sea, it was an easy 5-star for me within its niche. For the Whispering Door however, I have a few more points of critique.

What I didn’t love:

First, calling it “a spiritual sequel” to The Cerulean Sea is a nice way of me saying the two books are very similar. So much so that the characters as well as the plotline feel like beat-for-beat recreations of its predecessor. Linneus is Wallace, Arthur is Hugo and the antagonist is a heartless bureaucrat who loves to do things by the book. It was all a bit too familiar at times. Secondly, the development of these characters just didn’t work for me. Like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Wallace is introduced as an undeniable and almost irredeemable jerk. After his passing, he flips a complete 180 to be a sweet, kind-hearted and selfless guy. Not “develops to be”. No. “Flips”. Change is hard, and you can’t convince me that a person can change that completely in such a short time, not even with a motivator so powerful as Death. Had Wallace been introduced as this sweet guy from the start, I would’ve found his development and the romance with Hugo so much more believable. The redemption arc the author was going for just felt very rushed and unearned the way it was.

Lastly, there is the one way in which these two books differed for me. The House in the Cerulean Sea was a cosy fantasy about found family, that had little depth, but had no pretences to be otherwise. That was part of what made it so refreshing. Under the Whispering Door however, tries to take on some very heavy topics like death, grief, suicide and more, and unfortunately takes a few shortcuts here too. When The Cerulean Sea was being very heavy-handed and cliché with its messaging, I didn’t mind too much, but with such sensitive subject matter as death and grief, I expect a bit better. Grief is hard, Kübler-Ross stages are never linear and people will always be defined by more than one event or characteristic, whether that be in life or death. In simple terms: the books feel-good-core interfered with some of the depth it tried to search, and it left me with a slight bitter aftertaste, especially regarding the ending...

Minor spoilers regarding the ending:

“A river only moves in one direction, no matter how much we wish it weren't so.” Except it doesn’t really, because if you’re the protagonist it’ll totally run the other way for a change to help you out… That's a shortcut if you ask me...

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