The Ten Thousand Doors of January
By Alix E. Harrow
Redhook (Orbit) — September 2019
ISBN: 9780316421997 — Hardcover — 374 pp.
I discovered Alix E. Harrow’s writing in Shimmer Magazine, where it matched the former ezine’s title so perfectly that her name stuck in my memory to be recognized in later short fiction I came across as: ‘oh, this is an author who wrote something that really resonated with me.’ Typical for that reaction, it was a combination of her power with words and the insights that lay behind her stories that captured my attention. In 2019 when I saw that she had a debut novel coming out, I jumped on the opportunity to read and review it. I devoured it, and mulled over its magic and beauty for awhile after, but academic priorities put the review on the back-burner until now. Since then, The Ten Thousand Doors of January has garnered numerous award nominations, and I’ve purchased Harrow’s second novel, The Once and Future Witches, now in my priority TBR pile. If you’re unfamiliar with these works still, I hope this backlist review brings Harrow’s debut novel into your list of books to read.
January Scaller has been raised through childhood in the care of the seemingly kindly Mr. Cornelius Locke in his sprawling estate, amid the antiques, rarities, and oddities that her wealthy guardian has collected. Her mother has been gone since January was a baby. January’s father, Julian, works for Mr. Locke, traveling far and wide to obtain exotic items for Locke and other members of the Archaeological Society. With her father away for long stretches of time, January is left to grow up surrounded by wonders, but is trained to keep a proper distance from them, or the activities of the men in the Society. Though she never completely loses the curious, precocious nature of her childhood, January becomes molded according to Locke’s vision. As she matures into a teen, January feels more isolated and confined, never fully at home. As stated in the publisher’s description, January feels like another one of Locke’s rare, exotic treasures, “carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.”
Things change for January around her seventeenth birthday, with the discovery of a book: “The Ten Thousand Doors”. Therein she reads a story about Ade Larson, a young woman who finds a door that leads to a strange land, and to love. January recalls her own discovery of a similar door earlier in her childhood, and Mr. Locke’s attempts then to suppress January’s curiosity and excitement. Confronting Locke with her book, memories, and growing questions January becomes threatened by the true nature of her guardian and the Society that employs her father. Told that her father has gone missing and presumed dead, but with indications otherwise, January’s calm and lonely life becomes overturned in dangers and new discoveries.
Luckily for January, she is not alone. Supporting her are a childhood friend, Samuel, a faithful dog ironically named Bad, and a warrior protector sent by Julian named Jane. Helped on her journey by this trio of trusted companions, January discovers that the tale in “The Ten Thousand Doors” is intertwined with her history, and the nefarious plans of Locke and the Archaeological Society.
Though described as a portal fantasy, The Ten Thousand Doors of January doesn’t conform to one of the major aspects that readers might expect from that connotation. The novel is indeed full of physical doors, portals between worlds. But, this is not a story focused on the journey of a protagonist through these portals and some other world, like a Narnia, or the Thomas Covenant epic fantasies. The portals here serve as an influence on the plot, as a backdrop for its world(s) and the setup of its characters. Far beyond that, they serve a symbolic role as gateways of change. They can be opened to new possibilities, or they can be shut to maintain the status quo. The book-within-a-book of the novel exists as just another type of door, full of the same symbolism. Books may be opened to allow a broadening of knowledge, a discovery of new worlds. Or they can be kept closed, dusty and unread, to keep learning limited and controlled.
Harrow also builds the symbolic change of moving through doors, back and forth, forward and backward, into the narrative structure of the novel, alternating between chapters from January’s present point of views and chapters from “The Ten Thousand Doors” book that January finds, recounting the past. This creates a situation where the first half of the novel is all about character establishment and discovery. As readers along with January, we learn of realities and possibilities from the book she discovers. In the meantime we learn the context in which January finds herself, and begin to see the nature of the secondary characters around her.
While slower moving, the start to the novel is where the care of Harrow’s writing can really be felt at a tempo to bask in and fully appreciate:
I returned to my ledger copying after dinner feeling sullen and strangely rubbed raw, as if there were invisible chains chafing against my skin. The numbers blurred and prismed as tears pooled in my eyes and I had a sudden, useless desire for my long-lost pocket diary. For that day in the field when I’d written a story and made it come true.
My pen slunk to the margins of the ledger book. I ignored the voice in my head that said it was absurd, hopeless, several steps beyond fanciful — that reminded me words on a page aren’t magic spells — and wrote: Once upon a time there was a good girl who met a bad dog, and they became the very best of friends.
There was no silent reshaping of the world this time. There was only a faint sighing, as if the entire room had exhaled. The south window rattled weakly in its frame. A sick sort of exhaustion stole over my limbs, a heaviness, as if each of my bones had been stolen and replaced with lead, and the pen dropped from my hand. I blinked blurring eyes, my breath half-held.
But nothing happened; no puppy materialized. I returned to my copy work.
Sometimes words written on a page are a sort of magic spell. Harrow’s magic continues through the novel, but after the establishment of characters and the start of January’s (and our) discovery of the history within the book, the action kicks in. And it kicks in to drive the plot at a more rapid speed that twists and turns all the way to The Ten Thousand Doors of January‘s satisfying conclusion.
Through this all, it is January who really shows the sole development of character, transforming from a docile girl who has been ‘curated’ by Mr. Locke into a fiercely assertive young woman. The other characters mainly exist as they are, like types. Some have criticized this about Harrow’s novel, but to me it fit perfectly. The novel is set in the early 1900s, with events chronicled in “The Ten Thousand Doors” taking place just prior. The setting of the novel and its atmosphere evoked familiarity to that age just prior, particularly the works of Dickens. January as protagonist represents change, a more modern world coming into/from an era where the things worked differently, where power distributed differently, that represented in the other characters. Harrow’s characters are very Dickensian, from the careful names that she gives to them to their representation of a particularly kind. This is most classically apparent in the villain Mr. Locke, but also in the weary, exploited Julian, the mentor protector Jane, and the love/devotion embodied by Samuel and Bad.
Dickens’ novels were also more than just money-making entertainment. They are filled with political and social commentary. Just look at A Christmas Carol. Harrow does the same sort of thing with The Ten Thousand Doors of January, using her characters, the situations they are in, and the symbolism of doors to speak to things like colonialism, race, class, and gender. The old order of power resists change and the opening of doors. Yet, brave individuals fight to open the doors and remove barriers. It’s a simple and powerful message that could be made rather tritely, but Harrow achieves it skillfully, as you would find in Dickens.
The final avenue taken with the door metaphor in The Ten Thousand Doors of January gets summed up early in the novel by the protagonist:
At this point, you’re thinking this story isn’t really about Doors, but about those more private, altogether more miraculous doors that can open between two hearts. Perhaps it is in the end — I happen to believe every story is a love story if you catch it at the right moment, slantwise in the dusk — but it wasn’t then.
Doors opening to romantic interests figure into the novel, but it is this aspect of The Ten Thousand Doors of January that comes across as most forced, in an instance even unnecessary. Since it might have been developed more if anything, this aspect is certainly not intrusive to enjoying the novel, even if it doesn’t seem natural.
After all this, the letter included in the ARC I received from Nivia Evans, the Redhook/Orbit editor sums The Ten Thousand Doors of January up perfectly:
It’s easy to say it’s mesmerizing ad absorbing, that it’s a tale of fathers and daughters, lost homes, inherited stories, and magical doors…
…But there are three things you need to know:
1. There’s magic hidden in our myths and fables.
2. The smallest, most ignored voice can shift the world in unexpected ways.
3. [This novel] will leave you dreaming of all the doors waiting to be explored and will linger in your mind for years to come.
I’m now eager again to dig into The Once and Future Witches. And Harrow has a novella coming out this year from Tor.com (A Spindle Splintered). One way or the other they’ll find their way here for review too. Go find her work and become enraptured along with me.