Robyn Reviews: Under the Whispering Door

‘Under the Whispering Door’ is a comedic fantasy novel about death, grief, found family, and the importance of living life to the fullest. With a mixture of laugh out loud and heartwarming moments, it’s an enjoyable read – but also a superficial one that struggles to reach the depths it strives for. This is a good, gentle story after a long day, but not one likely to linger.

Wallace Price has dedicated his entire life to his company – and even then, he’s not the sort of boss you’d buy a Christmas card for. He’s outraged to find only four attendees at his own funeral – one of them his ex-wife who spends most of the ceremony talking about what an asshole he was, and one of them the Reaper ready to escort him to the afterlife. However, rather than taking him straight to the Beyond, the Reaper instead takes Wallace to a very peculiar tea shop. There, a ferryman named Hugo serves tea and cake to all who need it – including lonely souls coming to terms with things they missed in life. With Hugo’s help, Wallace starts to adjust to his death – and makes some startling realisations about his life. However, the tea shop is only a stop on the journey, not a final destination – and as deadline day nears, Wallace starts to realise he isn’t ready to move on.

At the start of the book, Wallace is a horrible person. He only cares about his company’s profit margin – not its employees. He has no real friends, an ex-wife he certainly isn’t on speaking terms with, and so little to do that he spends his entire life at work. However, the longer he spends with Hugo and his ragtag band at the tea shop – Mei, the newly qualified Reaper, Nelson, the ghost who refuses to cross over and leave his grandson, and Apollo, the adorable ghost dog – the more regrets Wallace starts to have. His distaste at their inability to bring him back to life turns to grudging respect, and finally to true friendship – and it turns out Wallace Price has a heart after all. The change is sweet, but it also happens surprisingly quickly, not feeling entirely authentic. It’s hard to match the caricaturic villain Wallace is at the start of the book with the reasonably nice guy he’s become by the middle. The message that everyone can change for the better is lovely, but there isn’t quite enough nuance to carry it off.

Mei, Hugo, and Nelson, on the other hand, are all great characters. Mei is a spitfire, full of energy and determination and unwilling to take insolence from anyone – especially not the dead. Hugo is a calm, soothing presence with a lot of wisdom – but he’s also a bit blind to what’s in front of him, and as the story unfolds it’s clear that he’s almost as lonely as Wallace is. Nelson has a wicked sense of humour, but also an uncanny knowledge of human nature and a deep love for his family. Their little family is incredible, and together with Apollo it’s easy to see why Wallace wouldn’t want to leave.

The romance is choreographed from relatively early on and more subtly written than a lot of the rest of the book. I would argue that this isn’t really the sort of book that needs a romantic subplot, but it’s a sweet relationship and it’s always lovely reading about gay couples getting a happy ending.

Stories with an underlying message are difficult to write without coming across as preachy, and while ‘Under the Whispering Door’ just about manages to avoid this, the sacrifice is a book that feels a bit twee. It’s a little too syrupy sweet and optimistic. There are darker passages – this is a story about death, and there are several subplots about grief including the death of a child and suicide – but some of their impact is lost because of the overarching sunshine-and-rainbows feel. Its a difficult balance, and some will probably love the optimism, but personally I was looking for a bit more depth and acknowledgement of just what a black pit grief can be.

One area TJ Klune is particularly strong at is humour – I regularly found myself laughing out loud while reading this. Admittedly, some of the jokes are a bit crass, but it’s hard not to laugh anyway. If you’re a fan of sitcoms, this would definitely be a book for you.

Overall, ‘Under the Whispering Door’ is a solid read but not one that I found spectacular. Fans of books with messages, sitcoms, and happy stories will likely love it, but for those looking for a more nuanced tale there are better options (like ‘A Man Called Ove‘) out there.

Thanks to NetGalley and Tor for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Tor
US hardback: 21st September 2021 / UK hardback: 28th October 2021

Robyn Reviews: She Who Became The Sun

‘She Who Became The Sun’ is a reimagining of the life story of Zhu Yuanzhang, the peasant rebel who drove the Mongols from China and became the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty. It has a few epic fantasy elements, but at its core is historical fiction. It provides a fascinating look at Chinese history and culture, along with intriguing explorations of gender identity and gender roles. This is the author’s debut, and it has a few weaknesses, but overall its a worthwhile and enjoyable read.

In Mongol-occupied China, a young peasant girl is foretold of an early death, while her brother is destined for greatness. However, when her brother unexpectedly dies instead, she decides to steal his identity and claim his fate for her own. The new Zhu joins a monastery, going from monk to soldier to commander in the rebellion against the Mongols. However, her life depends on her continuing to fool Heaven that she is truly her brother. Can anyone truly claim someone else’s destiny?

Zhu – known as Zhu Chongba for the majority of the book – is a brilliant morally-grey protagonist. Her sheer determination and will to live is inspiring and keeps her alive through the hardest of challenges. Zhu is intelligent, observant, and willing to obliterate all the rules to get what she wants – the greatness her brother was always destined for. However, that comes at a cost. Zhu must always think and act like Zhu Chongba – not Zhu Chongba’s sister. Anyone who comes close to discovering her secret must be silenced. And greatness, even destined greatness, is not an easy path – a path filled with far more enemies than friends.

Identity is a major theme throughout the book. The complexity of Zhu’s identity grows as the novel goes on – while she uses female pronouns in her internal thoughts, she mostly thinks of herself as somewhere in between male and female. Shelley Parker-Chan has stated that Zhu is genderqueer – this language didn’t exist in 14th century China, but she manages to make it clear regardless. Zhu isn’t the only character with a complex gender identity – her greatest enemy, General Ouyang, has a similar struggle, and the two have a strange kinship alongside their hatred. Ouyang was born male and strongly identifies as male, but is a eunuch. His appearance is feminine and those around him treat him as something other – not truly a man or a woman. Again, his difficulty with his outward gender identity and not being treated as a man is beautifully written, and its interesting seeing how Zhu and Ouyang’s battles with identity differ.

Another major theme is destiny. This is a very common theme in Chinese history and folklore, with everyone living a foretold fate based on their actions in past lives and their choices inevitably leading them there. Reading about how the characters view destiny, and how this affects different characters in different ways, is fascinating – reconciling a predestined fate withautonomy is easier for some than others. However, personally I found it made certain sections unsatisying. One of my favourite aspects about epic fantasy is the crafting of magic systems. ‘She Who Became The Sun’ doesn’t have a true magic system, but it has a couple of elements derived from destiny – the mandate of Heaven – and this is never explained beyond that it marks those chosen for greatness. I would have liked a little more information on this mandate and how it works, and why it gives its particular set of abilities.

One of the book’s highlights is how well Shelley Parker-Chan writes relationships. Growing up in the monastery, Zhu has a best friend – an older trainee monk named Xu Da – and their friendship is beautifully written, going from a tentative connection to a relationship more akin to brotherhood. Later, Zhu becomes friends and later more with Ma, one of the rebel’s daughters, and again the change from a light friendship characterised by teasing banter to a strong romantic relationship is beautifully done. On the flipside, Ouyang has an intensely complicated relationship with Esen, the eldest son of the Prince of Hesan and commander of his army. Esen is the height of masculinity and trusts Ouyang implicitly, and its never quite clear to what extent Ouyang wants him or wants to be him – even to Ouyang himself. Esen’s adopted younger brother, Wang Baoxiang, is another outsider, seeing himself and Ouyang as very similar – but Ouyang despises him, and the evolving relationships between Ouyang, Esen, and Wang Baoxiang are expertly written.

The main downside is the lack of connection between the reader and the characters. Each individual character is well-written, complex, and intriguing, but also seems to be kept at a distance. Each character forms wonderful relationships with other characters, but to an extent is shrouded from the reader. This is on the shorter side for an epic fantasy novel, lending it pace and easy readability, but it means the reader doesn’t have time to connect to all the characters given a perspective. Even Zhu, the overall protagonist who gets the vast majority of page time, never commands as much emotional investment from the reader as they should.

Overall, ‘She Who Became the Sun’ is a strong historical fantasy debut, heavy on the history and light on the fantasy, with an intriguing cast of characters that give a fascinating insight into Chinese history and culture. It also explores identity in a very nuanced way, taking a different approach to a common fantasy trope. The minor niggles only detract a little from an otherwise strong story. Recommended for fans of historical fantasy, Chinese history and folklore, LGBTQIAP+ fiction, and morally grey characters.

Thanks to NetGalley and Tor UK for providing am eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Tor
Hardback: 22nd July 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Library of the Dead

‘The Library of the Dead’ is the first book in the ‘Edinburgh Nights’ series, a paranormal urban fantasy by the Zimbabwean-Scottish author TL Huchu. There are elements of dystopia, horror, science-fiction, and fantasy, with the story told through the lens of Ropa, a fourteen-year-old protagonist. It’s an ambitious concept, and the end result is a little like a library being thrown into a blender – entertaining, but lacking in finesse and flow.

At fourteen, Ropa is the breadwinner of her family. She can still remember a time when they had a house – although her younger sister can’t – but now they rent a space in the slums for their caravan, Ropa barely making enough to cover that. School is a distant memory, replaced by what she can do to get by: take messages from the dead to the living, ensuring they can pass to the beyond in peace. However, when one of the dead begs her to find her missing son, Ropa is pulled into a conspiracy far beyond anything she ever imagined. There’s much more magic in the world than just ghosts – and much more danger too.

Ropa makes a great protagonist. She’s feisty, brave, and simultaneously wise beyond her years and hopelessly naive. She puts on a tough face, but beneath it she cares deeply. She wants a better life for her little sister than she’s managed for herself and she’ll do anything to get it – even when her sister hates her for it. She also narrates in a Scottish dialect, occasionally interspersed with scientific terminology – something which I enjoyed, but others might find jarring.

While Ropa is the only point-of-view character, there are some great secondary characters – especially Priya, an apprentice Healer who uses a wheelchair, and Ropa’s gran, who clearly has a fascinating backstory only hinted at on page. Priya makes every scene she’s in more fun, and Ropa’s gran brings a sense of peace and calm to an otherwise turbulent novel.

Where it all falls down a bit is the plot. The idea is excellent – children disappearing from their homes, with those who return irrevocably changed – but the execution feels like a middle-grade novel with some adult themes and swearing thrown in. Ropa manages to get out of every sticky situation by sheer luck (except for one, in a mysterious house, which is brilliant). Her friendship with Priya is never explained – Priya simply decides Ropa is her new best friend – and Ropa’s general air of obliviousness makes her seem younger than her fourteen years. Personally, I think this would make a brilliant middle grade novel – but it’s clearly aimed at adults, and as adult fantasy it doesn’t work nearly as well.

The other part which doesn’t work for me is the dystopia. ‘The Library of the Dead’ is set in near-future Edinburgh, but something has happened referred to only as the ‘catastrophe’. There are mobile phones and the internet, but people are just as likely to use a donkey and cart as to use a car. Class divides have been exacerbated, with masses in slums and minorities in massive houses in the cities. There are frequent references to a distant king with an iron rule – everyone must greet each other by wishing him well – but there’s still mandatory public education and a healthcare system, even if it’s one that’s no longer free. The overall feel is cobbled together, and it doesn’t seem necessary alongside the paranormal elements.

Overall, ‘The Library of the Dead’ is a fun read with some great characters and interesting ideas, but it feels more like a hodge-podge of different books than a single linear narrative in its own right. Recommended for adult fans of YA and MG fantasy.

Thanks to NetGalley and Tor Books for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Tor Books
Hardback: 4th February 2021