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Under The Whispering Door by T.J. Klune - Review

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OFFICIAL AUTHOR BIO: TJ KLUNE is a Lambda Literary Award-winning author (Into This River I Drown) and an ex-claims examiner for an insurance company. His novels include  the Green Creek series, The House on the Cerulean Sea and The Exraordinaries. Being queer himself, TJ believes it's important—now more than ever—to have accurate, positive, queer representation in stories.

FORMAT/INFO: Under the Whispering Door was published by Tor Books on September 21st, 2020. It is 384 pages split over 22 chapters and an epilogue. It is told in third person from Wallace's point of view. It is available in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook formats.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Wallace Price is dead, a fact he refuses to acknowledge. Struck down suddenly by a heart attack, Wallace is at a loss of what to do with himself until a Reaper arrives to escort him to Charon’s Crossing Tea and Treats, a little tea shop in the middle of a forest. There he meets Hugo, owner of the shop and ferryman to souls. It’s Hugo’s job to help souls come to terms with their death until they are ready to cross over on their own terms. But Wallace is a stubborn individual and refuses to cross, convinced there must be a way to get back to his body. Stuck in the tea shop until he finds a way out, Wallace has nothing but time on his hands – and for the first time, realizes that maybe that when he was alive, he wasn’t actually living.

Under the Whispering Door is a charming standalone story that continues T.J. Klune’s tradition of writing cups of cocoa in book form. The fantasy here isn’t truly wrapped up in the ghosts and reapers, but in the magic of having a safe space where everyone is supportive and has near infinite patience while you work through your own issues. Hugo, the owner of the shop, is warm and inviting and has no judgement about a ghost’s problems, even when they emotionally (or occasionally physically) lash out. Mei, his Reaper assistant, is a little more brash and willing to tell people off, but is also willing to sit quietly while a ghost accepts that they have died. It’s almost too saccharine, but the dream of having a place where you can offload all your emotional baggage without judgement is one I was willing to embrace. 

The tale begins in an almost Christmas Carol fashion, with Wallace playing the role of Scrooge. In this instance though, rather than being visited by three spirits who give him a chance to live differently, Wallace jumps straight to seeing the miserable affair that is his funeral before being whisked away to contend with the fact that there is no second chance at life for him. But Wallace can still become a better person, not through an overnight epiphany, but through weeks of slow learning and gradual shedding of his old ways. He’s obnoxious when the story begins, arrogant and demanding and generally awful, but he does change with time.

Some of his learning comes simply through long conversations with Hugo, and it’s amazing how engrossing such conversations can be. Under the Whispering Door is not an action-packed book, but I was more than content to sit and absorb the ambiance as two people wrestle with life and how to live it. And of course, those conversations are the basis for the slow-burn romance that gradually builds across the story. I love tales where two people grow closer over time, where love evolves out of friendship, and Under the Whispering Door is here to deliver on that trope in spades. This time, though, there’s an added dash of star-crossed romance, because how long can a relationship go on when one party is dead?

While the true fantasy may be how accepting Charon’s Crossing is, there are still plenty of fantastical elements throughout the story, from the magical tether that keeps Wallace spiritually grounded to this plane of existence to the imposing Manager, the entity who oversees the cycle of death and steps in when anything seems to upset the balance. There are some darker moments peppered throughout, enough to ground the stakes without overwhelming the reader. All of this is conveyed with Klune’s trademark whimsy that is somehow surreal while still emotionally relevant enough to make you care about the characters. Trust me: I 100% cried at the ending.

CONCLUSION: Once again, Klune has created a heart-warming fantasy, complete with slow-burn romance. The whole premise of Hugo’s tea shop is that it’s a place for humans and spirits alike to have a cup of tea and process their troubles. So if you’re looking for a quiet, loving place to curl up while you set aside the world for a bit, Under the Whispering Door is here to serve.

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