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 (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.

APEX MAGAZINE Issue 121 (Jan./Feb. 2021) Edited by Jason Sizemore

A welcome return for Apex Magazine. The recurring theme for the stories in this issue seems to be the possibility of hope amid darkness and despair. I can’t think of a better feeling to evoke in this time.

“Root Rot” by Fargo Tbakhi — Apex Magazine returns after a hiatus with a testament to why they should keep publishing short stories. This story is powerful, melancholy, and beautiful. A man who has fled his home in Palestine for a better future on Mars has instead descended into a painful addiction-filled existence of lost love and continued brutal colonial oppression. Not an ‘easy’ read as it builds up hope for salvation only for devastation to overcome, but the language is stunning and the symbolism in the characters and setting to real lives and political borders is too important to shy away from. This is a modern-day prophetic lamentation.

“Your Own Undoing” by P H Lee — You don’t read stories in the second person. But, if I do, then I should give this a try I guess.

“Love, That Hungry Thing” by Cassandra Khaw — “Like coming home from the blizzard and letting your heartbeat thaw in hot water. That same kind of sweet, slow pain.” Humanity has left a post-apocalyptic Earth, but a group returns to that home left behind, with remanifested gods among them. In a Daji shrine in Tokyo, Ama, one of those returned, requests a boon of white fox messengers. For that wish, Ama is willing to sacrifice, for a selfless love. A lot of the details in this story are left vague to distill this story down, in simmering language, to that core concept found in the title. Love consumes.

“Mr. Death” by Alix E. Harrow — A story that had me chuckling from the start, even as it talks about the death of a two-year-old. A reaper gets assigned his first difficult death, a 30-month old soul to fetch and ferry, in consolation, across the river of death. But, of course, “two-year-olds are contrarian bastards and it takes several hours and a family-size pack of M&Ms to coax them across…” The voice in this story is perfection for someone who has to deal with the emotions of such a job. Can there be a way to cheat the system? Harrow takes the touching story in great directions.

“The Niddah” by Elana Gomel — Additional pandemics after SARS-CoV-2 culminate in an ‘ebola’-related disease where transfer of any blood becomes potentially deadly – or in a female specific manner, transformative. This creates a resurgence in oppression against women, including the resurgence of the niddah (which I had to look up.) Oh, how I yearned while reading this for more precise biology. This will be one for me to feature in Biology in Fiction, between its general accuracies of virology, mischaracterization of evolution, and how this particular disease stretches belief. However, the point of the story isn’t in the likelihood of the pandemic’s reality, as much as the social situation it creates and the symbolism of the metamorphoses it engenders. And the story succeeds in revealing those wonderfully. Depressing thought while reading: “…when science promised that the horrors of the past were… well, in the past.” If this line from the narrator has ever actually entered someone’s mind, they cannot not have ever actually listened to a microbiologist. A reminder that science communication really needs improvement still.

“Gray Skies, Red Wings, Blue Lips, Black Hearts” by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor — A girl in the City loses her soul while digging graves in the catacombs. Redcap Kestrel agrees to help her for just a promise, that the girl will wear a sleeve to prevent her soul from going off again, or being taken. Though Redcap Kestrel’s surreal journey she – and the reader – discovers more about herself as well as the fate of the girl’s soul. Chillingly atmospheric and allegorical.

“All I Want for Christmas” by Charles Payseur — So much packaged in such a small word count. A story that reminds me that the most important gifts are not material, and that children are far more clever than usually given credit.

“The Ace of Knives” by Tonya Liburd (Reprint) — Superb story now used in multiple classes as an example of code-switching, it has so much to offer beyond as well, including an example of horror that contains an uplifting, empowering ending, and of treating mental illness, pain, and ways of healing meaningfully, with respect. This tale is full of magic.

“Roots on Ya” by LH Moore (Reprint) — A gathering, Virginia 1906. A young woman suddenly wretches, beetles, bugs and black garter snakes spewing from her mouth as she falls to the ground. A root man springs into action to prevent the curse from its end. The term ‘root man’ evokes both the meaning of herbalism and healing and simultaneously the spiritual aspect of ancestry. What I liked here is the attention to both victim and the person responsible, now under a curse of their own. A short bit of folklore from a cultural perspective that I did not grow up amid, but which universally connects.

Stories can be found online at Apex Magazine, with selections free to read over time. But it deserves purchase by those who enjoy.