Welcome to Diversity in Speculative Fiction, formerly Diversity in Sci-Fi! Today we are reviewing Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune, a meditative contemporary fantasy about grief, loss, and enduring love.
Title/Author: Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune
Summary: Bitter lawyer Wallace Price dies of a heart attack and is shocked to find that only five people are attending his funeral: his three partners at his law firm, his ex-wife, and a strange woman he's never seen before. Little does he know that the stranger is his Reaper, here to guide him to Charon's Crossing, a teashop run by Ferryman Hugo Freeman. Hugo's job is to guide Wallace through the door that leads to the afterlife, whenever Wallace is ready. But Wallace doesn't want to cross, and the more time he spends with Hugo, the more he feels himself falling for him...
Book Format: eBook, and also available in print and downloadable audiobook
Length: 373 pages
Three out of four of the principal cast are people of color. Hugo and his grandfather Nelson, a ghost who lives at the teashop with Hugo, are Black. Mei, the Reaper assigned to Wallace, is Chinese-American. All three characters are wonderfully realized, whole people. Hugo is a gentle man who wears colorful bandanas and devotes his life to helping people, both alive and dead. Nelson is elderly but spry, and just as likely to play wacky pranks on people as he is to help them through their trauma. Mei is sarcastic, passionate, and fiercely protective of her found family. As a white writer, Klune takes care to make his representation organic and natural. I especially appreciated how, in his acknowledgments at the end of the book, he thanks his sensitivity readers who helped him fine-tune his characters of color.
As in all of Klune's books, queer representation is front and center. Wallace is bisexual, while Hugo is gay. A pivotal minor character is also gay, and the reveal of his backstory was both heartbreaking and beautiful. The romance between Wallace and Hugo is sweet and filled with the yearning that comes with the territory of being unable to touch a ghost. However, I felt that it developed too quickly, purely because Wallace's transformation from a cold and unfeeling man to a "good" person seemed abrupt. Wallace is a genuinely terrible person at the start of the book, and the narrative seemed to gloss over the hard work that goes into unlearning biases and becoming a better person. Still, his relationship with Hugo is wholesome and satisfying, if you can accept an unrealistically quick change in personality.
One of my favorite subplots is the ongoing feud between two key female characters: Mei and Desdemona Tripplethorne, host of Desdemona Tripplethorne's Sexy Seances. Desdemona is a charlatan, a fake medium who preys on grieving people desperate for the chance to connect to their lost loved ones. Mei, on the other hand, is a true medium who is capable of straddling the worlds of the dead and the living. Their personalities could not be more different, but both are delightful to read about, particularly when they clash.
Under the Whispering Door was written as a way for author TJ Klune to process his grief over losing his husband to cancer. It's not a book for everyone, as it discusses death in its many forms, including the loss of a child, death by illness, violent deaths, and suicide. With that said, it's a tremendously hopeful and cathartic book in the hands of the right reader, and the heaviness of the subject matter is broken up with lighthearted moments. While it doesn't get everything right (for example, some of the humor veered towards slapstick comedy that would work better in a movie than on the page), it was the right book for me at this point in my life. After a string of losses over the past few years, I needed to read this emotional and poignant book, which has earned a special place in my heart.