ARC Review: Under the Whispering Door

Happy Tuesday, everyone! I’m back with a review of one of my most anticipated reads of the year. I *squealed* when I was approved for this ARC and it’s safe to say that I devoured it. Just like The House in the Cerulean Sea, T.J. Klune’s newest book came just when I needed it most.

Goodreads synopsis:

When a reaper comes to collect Wallace Price from his own funeral, Wallace suspects he really might be dead.

Instead of leading him directly to the afterlife, the reaper takes him to a small village. On the outskirts, off the path through the woods, tucked between mountains, is a particular tea shop, run by a man named Hugo. Hugo is the tea shop’s owner to locals and the ferryman to souls who need to cross over.

But Wallace isn’t ready to abandon the life he barely lived. With Hugo’s help he finally starts to learn about all the things he missed in life.

When the Manager, a curious and powerful being, arrives at the tea shop and gives Wallace one week to cross over, Wallace sets about living a lifetime in seven days.

Under the Whispering Door is a contemporary fantasy about a ghost who refuses to cross over and the ferryman he falls in love with.

My review:

Overall rating: 4/5
Pages: 384
Genre: Contemporary fantasy, LGBTQ+
Pace: Medium
Read if you loved: The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune, The Guncle by Steven Rowley
Content warnings: Heart attack, suicide, death of a loved one (parent, pet, child), anxiety, murder, depression, cancer

Equipped with the same charm that drew readers towards The House in the Cerulean Sea but this time delving into fears that have seized us all over the last year, Under the Whispering Door‘s quiet reflections on life, grief, and what it all ultimately means is like a warm embrace. Klune delivers on these promises, gifting us a new (and diverse! but more on this later) cast of quirky and lovable characters who explore difficult topics through a lens that makes it all seem a little less scary, and sometimes that’s all we need. However, I would recommend taking a close look at the content warnings because while these topics are dealt with in his characteristic whimsical style, they are still heart wrenching.

Going into this book, I actually thought I would enjoy it more than THITCS simply because I love a good after-life premise. I adored the tea shop setting; it felt intimate but dynamic, allowing for life and death to interact in several ways over the course of the story. The shining strength of this novel, however, are the characters. Mel and Nelson stole the show for me; their presence on the page guaranteed an enjoyable scene and enhanced my reading experience despite a sometimes slow plot. Wallace’s character development was clearly the vehicle through which the novel delivered its moments of insight, and I generally found this to be fairly effective.

There were a few things that I felt were lacking. At times the plot did feel a bit repetitive/slow, but since the book itself is so short, it wasn’t too much of an issue. Again, I’m a huge character person so if I like who is on page, I care less about what is actually happening. This might be a challenge for readers who are more plot-driven and tend to get bored if little progresses in that regard. The other, bigger problem that I had was with the romance. It felt underdeveloped and abrupt, and I think it’s because so much of it happens off-page. We get references to Hugo and Wallace’s conversations but hardly get enough insight to justify the subsequent intensity of their relationship.

Finally, we need to talk about how diversity is handled by white authors. I don’t want to be the person who criticizes white authors for not including BIPOC characters but also criticizes them when they do it, but I do want to have a discussion on it. That’s how we learn! I appreciate Klune’s inclusion of Black and Asian characters; I truly do. But I would be lying if I said I found the messaging to be a little inconsistent and awkward. We hear about Mel’s experience, which is influenced strongly by her race (in a slightly stereotypical manner, if I say so myself), however this treatment is not offered to Hugo or Nelson, who are Black men. Moreover, since this book explores an interracial relationship, I was expecting it to be addressed simply because of how Mel’s character was explored. I’m not saying it is a requirement, it just felt strange that one character’s racial identity was a plot point while the other’s was largely ignored. Eager to hear any opinions on this – this isn’t an attack, just my honest reaction.

It’s been a while since I read The House in the Cerulean Sea so I don’t feel as comfortable comparing them head-to-head, but I can confirm that if you enjoyed one, you are likely to enjoy the other. At the very least, it’ll make you smile plenty, and we all need a little bit more joy in our lives. Thank you to the author, Tor Books, and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Under the Whispering Door is out on September 21st!

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