T.J. Klune, Under the Whispering Door (2021)

Author: T.J. Klune

Title: Under the Whispering Door

Format: e-book

Pages: 384

Series: –

I’ve heard a lot of good things about T.J. Klune’s books; when I saw this one on NG, I jumped at the opportunity to finally get acquainted with his writing. Alas, while the writing was smooth enough and well-meaning enough, Under the Whispering Door turned out to be a book not for me. I’m sure there are people who’ll enjoy this – not just more than I did, which is no big feat, but generally, in absolute terms, as a feel-good, “wholesome” novel.

I could probably finish my review here; then, words like “infantile” and “cloyingly sweet” wouldn’t have to be written. And I’m a bit tempted to do just that, because I don’t have a beef with this book; no uncontrollable growing and gnashing teeth while reading, no torn out hair – my reactions tended toward bafflement and growing dissatisfaction. Alas, I think I owe an explanation for this somewhat dismal rating. So, here it is.

Under the Whispering Door is a fantasy conglomerate of different tropes and themes and inspirations, from Dickens to studio Ghibli, from the found family trope to the treasure trove of New Age afterlife imagery. The main character, Wallace Price, is a stiff, overbearing, miserly and insensitive… curmudgeon, let’s call him nicely, on the verge of becoming even stiffer; he dies, you see, and that’s the beginning of his journey. It’s not Christmas, but rather March or thenabouts, but the influence of A Christmas Carol is undeniable. Faced with a total lack of grief from the handful of people who actually appeared at his funeral and with an angry outburst from his ex-wife over his casket, Wallace begins to realize he wasn’t a particularly nice person. Well, better late than never, but not to worry – he’ll have time to repent and find happiness, because death is a new beginning! Collected at said funeral by his personal Reaper, a person who’s supposed to ease the transition from life to death and help the poor souls on their road to afterlife, Wallace Price travels to a tea shop where he meets a Ferryman named Hugo. Yes, there are Reapers, Ferrypeople, and a Manager; almost-afterlife seems quite efficiently organized, with manila folders popping up out of thin air, with certain routines and guidelines in place (quite material, at that, with hooks), and rules of engagement. Apparently, even in death people require help, because death is traumatizing for the dying and the dead need therapy before they can happily float into the afterlife proper.

…It’s better not to ask questions, you can already see from the above paragraph that the setup doesn’t make sense; actually, I didn’t get the impression that sense or logic was in any way important to the author. The worldbuilding in Under the Whispering Door is mainly supposed to be cute and quirky, and for some it certainly will be. There is a house in the woods that’s made of four different houses sat one upon another in layers, like a cake, and at the top of the top floor there is a special door in the ceiling, leading up to the heavens. Quirky. 

Also, dead people need to work through their trauma of dying, and need to come to terms with their new state of being (unbeing is not an option), and that’s why they need a team of coaches and therapists in the almost-afterlife. Quirky. Otherwise, they become horrible Husks and… actually, nothing; the Husks just hang around aimlessly, too afraid to pass on, and there’s a whole side plot dedicated to them, but it also doesn’t make any sense: it’s just there so that the main protagonist has something to do. 

There is so much of writing by the numbers in the 2020s in this book. It’s not a bad thing, well done representation is something that’s always needed. But here, maybe apart from representation, it all seems token: love is obviously the conqueror of everything, the message that there are no bad people, just misunderstood people, is jammed down our throats at every turn, and the feel-good mushiness so sought after in the time of pandemic reaches new heights. To say nothing of the dog – there’s a ghost dog because it was so faithful in life that it decided to stay on after death. Aw, sweet! 

Aand, there’s tea. Gallons of tea in different flavors. Don’t get me wrong,  I love tea. I drink litres of the stuff every day. The problem is tokenism, merged with a really not nice whiff of smug superiority. Drinking loose leaf tea is apparently en vogue: tea seems everywhere these days, it dominates the genre. In self-respecting novels in the 2020s there’s no coffee, no fizzy drinks, not even water. There’s tea, and whoever drinks anything else, or, god forbid, doesn’t like tea (gasp!) is viewed as something less. 

This form of tribalism may seem innocuous enough, I mean, nobody is going to fight over tea, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. This novel has more of those little moments of superiority, not just about tea but also personal beliefs. New Age spirituality goes hand in hand here with an anti-theist approach that is just jarring – the idea of a personified god is gently laughed at, a few times, as something slightly backward and unenlightened, but apparently there’s nothing wrong with joyous choirs, doors filled with bright unearthly light, a demigod/supernatural being that looks like it’s watched Princess Mononoke a few times too many, and a guarantee of personal happiness in heavenly afterlife up above. Shintoism has personified gods aplenty, so what’s the deal? Maybe it’s just me, but I struggle to see the difference. Why is one belief portrayed as better than the other? 

As for the characters, there’s not much to write. They were there, period. Diverse, but not three-dimensional, they mostly seemed like props for the main protagonist (and oh boy, did he need them!). The plot, too, was severely underdeveloped, and a bit contradictory: death is only the beginning, so get to grips with your mortality, but actually… it’s better to get a second life, so cozy up to the Manager and show him you’re useful, like Thomas the Tank Engine. Unfortunately, I felt like the author spent most of his time and effort on whacking the readers over the head with his message rather than on thinking the whole thing through.

Under the Whispering Door is a mercifully quick read, and not entirely unpleasant. It’s heartfelt and warm, and if the warmth is suffocating and the sentimentality overbearing, this might be on me. I didn’t feel invested in the story, and maybe that’s why I had more time to pick it apart at the seams. Certainly, the tribal threads, however slight, were noticeable enough on the sweet superficially all-inclusive canvas that they pushed my reading experience from mildly entertaining to rather meh. 

Score: 3/10

I received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.

45 thoughts on “T.J. Klune, Under the Whispering Door (2021)

  1. To reiterate, in shorter form, this is the quintessential essence of modern day fantasy.

    Or, tripe. Utter and complete tripe.

    I’m just going to stop because this kind of book DOES make me froth and rage 😀

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yep, you’re 100% right. I think I’m going to make a break from new fantasy.

      I’m reading a Marine memoir now, which is a nice change of pace and something I sorely need. I feel like those new books are mostly rubbish, sorry. I’d use a stronger word, but will try to stay polite ;). This book almost caused a reading slump, and for me that’s a damning indictment.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. A US Marine, or some other countries marine?

        Bormgans and i have had mutual complaining comments about new books. I was going to write a post about it all but I’m running out of writing steam. We’ll have to see what happens in ’22.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. US Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a new book, hitting the shelves in a few days.

          You’re not thinking of stopping blogging, are you?

          Though I get it, actually. So many people just vanished this and the previous year, and the number of interactions (comments, not just likes) seems to go down, at least for me. And that’s the fuel for my blogging, at least in part. Also, when I hit a bad book, I’m losing a lot of writing steam. It’s not like I relish writing very critical reviews, appearances to the contrary ;).

          I’d love to read that post of yours, though 🙂

          Liked by 2 people

          1. If you like it, have you read Joker One?

            I am not thinking of quitting. But might have to re-think my strategy of interaction, as things have changed quite it a bit from the first half of the year. About half the new people I’ve tried to follow have all gone silent for at least a month during this year and so I’ve dropped them.

            For me, it is getting hard to review every book I read. But that’s the whole point of why I do this. All the other stuff, the funny/serious/whatever posts, is really just incidental. I do think a lot of it has to do with stress at my job, and that will be changing around new years anyway, so we’ll see if it was that or not 😀

            I’ve got a draft with a title saved, to help remind me, if I ever feel like it.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. No, I haven’t. I’ve read many of these over the years, and for a while I’ve had an oversaturation, but now I find I’m once again drawn to them. I’ll check Joker One out.

              Yeah, exactly. Lots of people just disappear. As for reviewing all the books – I never even considered doing that 😉 So many are just… lukewarm and inconsequential, and I like doing longer analyses about something I care enough about, as you know 😉

              Fingers crossed for your job, then! Is the move south happening? 😀

              All right! And if you won’t write it anytime soon, maybe I will, or Bart, or Jeroen 😉

              Liked by 1 person

    2. piotrek

      I think you’re both bitter and unfair 😛 99% of everything is, was, and will be crap, only the crap of yesterday is mostly gone and forgotten, or it;s the crap of our youth and we feel nostalgic about it 😉 Horrible books of 50 years ago were horrible in different ways than bad stuff published today, but still pretty horrible. And they will always be writers eager to just write whatever sells…

      Liked by 2 people

          1. Yes, that’s what is so nice about it! 🤣
            Also, to be fair, I suspect I read more new genre books than you lately… Our conclusions are simply based on different sets of data.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. This is the best review I’ve read all day, lol😁 I’m probably much too cynical for this book, and I’m quite sure after reading your review it wouldn’t work that well for me either. And nice observation about tea, it’s EVERYWHERE. I’m a coffee drinker myself😉

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m glad you like it 😊 I struggled with it a bit 😉

      I really don’t know what is going on with tea! Is there some shadowy tea lobby threatening the writers or something?? 😂

      I drink coffee too – the smell of it is just so delicious! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting, according to the holy temples of booktube, goodreads and reddit, this book and the Cerulean sea thing are the best books ever written. But I feared they would be like you describe them here, so I thought that I wouldn’t get anything out of them.

    I think the Swanwick books would be a perfect antidote to this. The Dragons of Babel or the Iron Dragon’s Daughter. They are dark and cynical and feel fresh and original. I’ll be reading the third book in the sequence soon, the Iron Dragon’s Mother, which came out in 2019.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, can’t believe I’m writing this but the Big Brother of conformity is watching and ensuring, with a gloved iron fist, that we all if not yet think the same things then at least say the same things ;). Because if you don’t like this book it must mean you’re an anti-LGBT+ racist who hates dogs and tea 😛

      I have Swanwick on my TBR thanks to you. I definitely need an antidote! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Definitely when it comes to tea! 🤣

          Seriously, though, I actually haven’t read Chambers yet. After reading all the hype reviews I’m a bit afraid that I won’t like her books – they seem to be quite similar to this at least in the levels of sweetness and lack of reality checks of any kind, at least judging by blurbs and opinions.

          I don’t know what’s going on. Bart will probably say that there are good books being published right now that drown in the sea of hyped mediocrity, but I really haven’t had that many great new reads lately. Old books, sure. Fresh ones? Umm… 🧐

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Hah! “cute and quirky” is usually the, er, kiss of death for me too, just about bearable in an easily forgettable kids book but simply unforgivable otherwise. (In fact, now I think about it, probably unforgivable in a kids book.) I loved your final deadpan comment expressing gratitude, it spoke volumes!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. *OUCH* 😀
    From your description of this story I wonder if the author tried to put a light, humorous spin on the ever-after, and failed, or if he wanted to present it as a serious possibility (for want of a better definition), and failed. What worries me most, though, is your mention of overbearing sentimentality, which would definitely NOT work for me…
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for reading, Maddalena! 😀
      I actually wonder that too – what was the purpose of this book. Hope it wasn’t only the perspective of economic gain. Whatever it was, it didn’t work for me.
      Hopefully my next read is going to be better! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  6. viz. tea. Might it have started with The Memory of Water, and than made totally in vogue by Ann Leckie in her Ancillary trilogy? Seems everybody started copycatting her books, the pronouns, the tea, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely Leckie and Imperial Radch, but it seems to be getting more widespread. Chambers recently published a novella about a robot and a tea monk 😉 I think I’m going to pay close attention to tea in genre fiction from now on… Maybe we should collate a list? 🤣

      Like

  7. Oh wow, even if I haven’t followed you for that long, I wouldn’t have thought this book would be in your taste. I quickly decided that The House at the Cerulean Sea wasn’t for me, raving reviews and all… I’m sure it would be way too sweet and wholesome for me. Give me a good murder mystery any day!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m trying to keep an open mind, but recently it’s been burn after burn 🤣 I think I’m going to return to some tried and true authors for a while before I embark on another journey into the unknown 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  8. I think the cover is really cute actually, but it also informs me that the reading mood in which I would most enjoy this book is not one that comes around for me very often.

    Maybe it’s time to return to some old favourites or to some writers whose work has challenged you in a GOOD way; it can’t feel good to be constantly explaining why a book doesn’t suit your reading taste? Or maybe it’s a particular kind of way to define what does work for you, by spending time with what does not work for you? Is it creatively inspiring somehow?

    As for the tea, I noticed there’s tea in Becky Chambers’ new novella, but I don’t have the sense that it’s a THING. Heheh

    Then again, there’s been very little overlap between our stacks (lately, anyway) so maybe I’m in the Dewey Decimal section for Coffee and just haven’t noticed yet. 🤣☕

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I think I’m going to read some classics and some books I know I can count on. Also, I have a few non-genre books waiting for me, so I’m going to read these.

      I guess I’ve been trying to check new stuff – for years I’ve been reading mostly books that are at least a few years, or decades, or centuries 😉 old, and I wanted to check the pulse of the current book world. It didn’t work for me as well as I hoped, so I guess it’s time to end this experiment.

      Funny that you ask, actually – there is a lot of creativity involved in this as well, because I stumbled upon a phenomenon that became my new research project: the concepts of adulthood and adolescence in modern Western society. And this came about in part from the feeling of dissociation from the prevailing pop-cultural moods 😀

      LOL, I’m fine with tea, coffee, cocoa, even orange juice – I just don’t like anybody to forcibly set the trends for me 😉 Drinking anything can be a fine narrative tool, because it easily creates a relatively intimate conversation situation – but when drinking a particular drink is portrayed as a mark of higher quality of the drinker (and I’m not talking about blood and vampires ;)) I’m going to notice this, and unfavorably at that.

      Like

      1. I think I’ve found almost as much inspiration from experiences that I didn’t find relatable on-the-page as those that I did, so I can see how this exploration could have sparked creativity for you. Growing up, with limited access to books, I read everything I could find, and a lot of it really was not a match for me at all, but it really shaped my ideas about stories and storytelling. And I bet that there are plenty of new books and authors who would be a good fit for you, as much as lately you haven’t felt that to be the case…we can’t read everything, eh? Maybe you’re not “ready to be put to pasture” just yet. 🤣 So you’re thinking that writers are using the consumption of tea as a shortcut for characterization that indicates these tea-drinkers are superior beings? Maybe you’re getting a lot of your reading recommendations from the same sources lately, and they’re all secretly pocketing kickbacks from the tea conglomerates? LOL Heheh Well, right after I left my comment here yesterday, I started to read one of the Booker shortlisted titles and…while negotiating for an arranged marriage there’s a tea ceremony of sorts. Which I thought very funny. (Except it’s actually not. But, you know.) Hope this doesn’t become a cat/dog issue so that I can continue to enjoy both and still claim superiority.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Heh, true. 🤣 I have some new Asian books lined up, this has been a very interesting experience for me these past few years.
          Actually, in Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, where I first encountered the tea fetish, tea rituals were depicted in a David Attenborough manner: detailed description but scarce explanation, as the meaning of the rituals was elusive and belonging only to the culture that spawned it. It was used there to create a feeling of otherness – along with the “she” gender form and a few other elements. In Klune’s book, however, a lot of evaluation is based on tea: tea in bags is bad and people who drink it are barbarians, heating water in microwave is frowned upon, people who don’t like tea turn out to be morally deficient, and revelling in drinking tea together makes a found family ritual. And while it could be construed as a POV’s perspective, a lot of additional authorial likes/dislikes come through it as well.

          I already started a list of books influenced by the mysterious tea lobby! 🤪

          Liked by 1 person

  9. For some reason, I had a feeling that you wouldn’t like it. I don’t know why I thought so, but because I love spoiling myself, I hoped to your rating first before reading through the review. This one is OFTEN recommended to me, as well as Cerulean Sea, and while I am curious to read them to see why they are so hyped, I have a strong feeling that I might react as you did. I don’t like being smacked over the head by the author’s message and sometimes the very sweet books don’t work for me.
    Funnily, I’m a bit more eager to try it now just to see what my reaction would be, lol.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. LOL 😉
      Yeah, this one didn’t work for me. Sweetness is one thing, and I generally find too much sweetness makes me nauseous 😛 but it’s that tribal “I’m better than you” attitude that raises my hackles. Also, the total disregard to logic in this book kind of makes me throw my hands in the air in exasperation. I don’t expect a genre fiction novel to be fully compatible with our world, but I’d like to see at least internal compatibility. Here? Forget about it 😉 This book feels a bit like Oprah show 😛

      Go for it! I’d be very curious to see how you’d react to this book, Zezee! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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