Author: Alix E. Harrow
Publication Date: September 10, 2019
Format: Advanced Reader Copy
Rating: 5 of 5 Stars
I was sent an Advanced Reader Copy of this book by the publisher.
I don’t have words to convey how gorgeous this book is. The story, the writing, the imagery, the cover; every bit of it is a literary feast for the eyes and mind. Yet one metaphor isn’t enough to describe it, and any attempt to adequately do so on my part is bound to fail. It’s a tale of love and heartbreak, adventure and suspense, myth and legend. It’s a portal fantasy opening a door into ten thousand worlds. It’s a a love letter to lovers of stories. It’s a metaphor itself for what all stories really are, doors into another world, and heralds of change.
“In the summer of 1901, at the age of seven, January Scaller found a Door. You know the kind of door–they lead to Faerie, to Valhalla, to Atlantis, to all the places never found on a map.
Years later, January has forgotten her brief glimpse of Elsewhere. Her life is quiet and lonely but safe on her guardian’s estate, until one day she stumbles across a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds in its pages, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure, and danger. A book that might lead her back to the half-remembered door of her childhood.
But, as January gets answers to questions she never imagined, shadows creep closer. There are truths about the world that should never be revealed.” – Goodreads blurb
I’m trying to decide what else to say about the story and characters. I’ve been trying to say less and less in this section of my reviews not because I don’t want to give too much away, but because I don’t want to give anything away. I chose the Goodreads blurb above as opposed to the one on the back of the book because I felt it gave a little bit better of a description without me having to add too much on my own. As for the characters…I kinda want you to discover them on your own…I feel like I’ll give away too much if I say anything at all.
Writing And Pacing
Harrow’s writing is poetry in prose. I have no other way to describe it. It’s the kind of writing I tend to expect in literary fiction but without all of the pretentious airs of superiority it holds over genre fiction. Her writing is like food for your reading soul. I’m not kidding, it’s like finding sustenance through storytelling which comes as a surprise because you didn’t realize you were starving. Harrow is a master of simile and metaphor, and can paint a picture through words and evoke a scene through narrative like few other authors I’ve read. I want so much to give you examples but with an ARC the publisher asks you not to quote from it because some material may not make it into the final version and I’m going to stick to that implied contract. But trust me, from its opening line to it’s closing page, The Ten Thousand Doors of January is chock full of quotable lines and morsels of words for you to savor for hours upon hours.
If anything in the above paragraph got your attention I hope it’s the idea that this book is meant to be read like you’re sitting down to a meal. I’m not talking about fast food, but rather a good home-cooked dinner that you linger over. This isn’t a book you rush through even if you sit down to read it all in a day. You enjoy it and let it replenish you. All this to say the pacing of this book isn’t breakneck, and it isn’t a slow burn. It’s steady, never too fast and never too slow, and always just the right amount of momentum to hold your interest and keep the pages turning.
This is a portal fantasy. And while the story is set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries of our world, Harrow has given it a magical twist. There are doors that exist throughout the world, doors to other worlds, worlds with other people and creatures and histories and lore. It’s these doors and worlds, and the magic that surrounds and fills them in which Harrow’s world-building shines. At times there are specific worlds explored, some in more depth than others, which give this book something of a true fantasy feel edging up against the world we inhabit. At other times there’s just the hint of another world, the implication of what might be, the possibility of something or somewhere else seeping back across the threshold into the our historical domain and into the reader’s mind which creates a setting in which what is real and what is metaphor is blurred.
At the same time much of the book is grounded in our historical past. Harrow sprinkles historical anecdotes throughout that tie the story to it’s time and place while adding her own amusing anecdotes through the interpretive lens of her main character. One of my favorite ways Harrow accomplishes this is by telling us what January is reading. Books are an important part of this story. Whether January is looking up a bird in “Audubon’s book” or reading White Fang (in its original serial version), books and the literature of the age, some famous and others more obscure to a modern reader add detail to the narrative in subtle comforting ways.
Most of the story is set geographically in rural Kentucky and Vermont. Harrow lends both locals an air of home and place that seems almost second nature, like we could step outside on any day and in any season and be there, with all their corresponding senses of hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch. She writes them not simply as a location, but also as a mood and a sense of being, the way you are in a place that you aren’t apart from it. I don’t know if that makes sense or not, but it’s part of the magic of her world-building that the ordinary world we know becomes real in the fictional world of the book.
There are two themes which really stood out to me. The first and most evident is that of the Door. As you’ll read early on these are Door’s with a capital D. As such they are more than just a door. These Door’s a gateways to other worlds, other places, and other realities. It is through Doors that change, chaos, revolution, and upheaval come in to our world. Without such Doors ours would be a world of order, everything in it’s correct place forever and always. You might think that Doors are thus dangerous, but therein is the lie of modernity as espoused by those in power (something Harrow seems to make effort to criticize). Without chaos and change and revolution the world becomes stagnant and evil, controlled by a few for their own ends.
It isn’t too much of a stretch to take the theme of the Doors, their links to other worlds, the ability for people to move through them and change history, and apply it to the metaphor of a book as a door into another world. A door through which a reader might walk and be transported and transformed, coming through the other side a changed person who might then help usher in a new world. The narrative of the The Ten Thousand Doors brushes up against this idea and hints heavily at it in such a way that it’s almost impossible to miss the way in which Harrow is telling us about the importance of books and stories not simply as outlets for escape and the imagination, but as necessary tools for the enlightenment and betterment of the world.
The other theme that really struck me was the one revolving around the aching longing for relationship. This was played out in a number of ways, but most notably in the relationship between fathers and daughters. The book has a number of father/daughter relationships that are wanting. For some it is an absent father and a daughter longing for him to be near, who is formed by that estranged relationship and whose choices later in life can’t help but be driven by it. There is also the forced relationship, formed not by blood relation but by proximity and time where the father who raises and cares for a child becomes the only one she really knows, even it it isn’t altogether healthy.
Then there’s the longing for relationship between people both in friendship and in love. The idea that some relationships will drive a person to the ends of the earth and beyond in order to find it, or more specifically to find what may have been lost. The father/daughter relationship plays into this one but it goes so much further. This theme touches upon happiness and sadness, upon healing and wounds that linger, upon life and death, real and metaphorical. This book gutted me with the achingly beautiful longing of the story.
The Muses who themselves strode through a Door in our ancient past bestowed a gift upon Alix E. Harrow. What Clio, Erato, and Calliope gave her she has gifted back to us in The Ten Thousand Doors of January. It is safe to say it will be one of the best books to be published this year, not just in fantasy, but in any genre. Hell, it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a decade, a book to go on my list of top “must reads” for anyone asking not just “what’s a good book you’ve read recently”, but “can you recommend a great book?” I urge you to pick this one up, open the cover, and step through a Door.