The Ten Thousand Doors of January Hardcover – September 12, 2019
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And now we have this debut novel by Alix Harrow. It is everything I look for in fiction. Beautiful writing; clever, unique plot; interesting characters; a world I can lose myself in. You can read this on many levels. If all you want is a thumping good fantasy/adventure, it's here for you. If you want a coming-of-age tale, it's here. If you want a love story, there's some of that also. And if you want an allegorical commentary on society and its biases, injustices and strictures, look no further.
This is January Scaller's story and it begins in 1901 in Vermont when she is seven. January, the daughter of a black father, Julian Scaller, and a white mother whose name and existence are unknown to her and us at the beginning, is the ward of wealthy collector Cornelius Locke, her father's employer. Julian is sent off around the world to find treasures and valuable artifacts for Mr. Locke, while January lives a lonely life, rather like Locke's curious pet, possession, or curiosity as a mixed-race girl.
She is pampered, as a rich man's ward, but her life is contained and confined. When she discovers her first magic Door at the age of seven, she enters the threshold of a new world for a brief moment, until she hears Locke calling to her and she passes out of that world again, but not before picking up a silver coin she will keep hidden.
This is not the kind of behavior Locke prescribes and January is required to behave appropriately until, at the age of 17, she discovers a leather-bound journal, THE TEN THOUSAND DOORS. There's a whole world, or perhaps one should say "worlds", out there just waiting to be discovered and explored if one can only find the Door to enter them. "Because there are ten thousand stories about ten thousand doors and we know them as well as our names. They lead to Faerie, to Valhalla, Atlantis and Lemuria, Heaven and Hell, to all the directions a compass could never take you, to 'elsewhere'".
And "certain words written by certain people" hold power. This "word magic" can open doors, to effect change, to free and open minds. Is January one of those "certain people"? Perhaps it "isn't healthy for young girls to grow up with their heads full of doors and other worlds."
So January breaks away from her confines and sets out on her quest. To find her father. To learn about her mother. To know things. To be free. To find a place to belong. And we readers go along for the ride.
As I said earlier, you can choose to read this as a rollicking fantasy/adventure, with certain people searching for Doors and new worlds and other more powerful people looking to stop them and close all those Doors, because Doors "overturn order" and "instigate all sorts of trouble and disruptions."
Or you can read this as a coming-of-age story about a girl who needs to find out more about her father and mother in order to understand herself.
Then there's the fantasy's allegorical level with social commentary about racism and classism, about the rich and powerful oppressing the less powerful, about the need for freedom and change, and about the power of the written word in all of this.
But, most of all for me, there was the simple delight of reading an excellently written book. A book I savored and read slowly, quite the change from my usual race to a book's finish line denouement.
This story mainly takes place in the first few years of the 20th Century and at the start of the book it is 1901. The setting (for most part) is the Eastern Seaboard where Mr. Cornelius Locke is the multi-millionaire owner of several estates and the head of the New England Archaeological Society.
The story is told from the point-of-view of his charge, little January Scaller. January is obviously a mixed-race child but she knows little of her background. She is a small child at the start of the book but we follow her and her adventures as she goes through her teenage years. . We also know very little about January’s background other than her father - a black man - who has been hired by Mr. Locke to go out into the world and collect objects of interest for Mr. Locke’s museum. January only sees him on occasion but longs to see him more often.
January is a wonderful character; adventurous, precocious and obviously gifted in ways that are unclear at the start of the story. We know that January has the ability to go through “Doors” that lead into other mystical and miraculous places. (This is no spoiler, you know from the very start.) Also important is a small book/diary called The Thousand Doors -something January finds early on which proves to be key to the plot.
What is not clear is the nature of these “Doors” - their origin, why they exist and how you gain entry.
I’m a little concerned about giving away any spoilers because I think it’s important to know “what happens next” when the author wants you to, to get the most enjoyment out of the book. What I will be able to say is that we follow January as she finds out about her own origins and background and those of these mysterious “Doors.” There is a resolution to the story and by the end, we get the answers to most of our questions.
Saying that, I had mixed reactions to the story. On the one hand it was incredibly imaginative and unique and boy do I give it credit for that. The concept of the Doors and the way they are used in the story is great.
The prose is for the most part pretty great if you like whimsical, which I do. At the same time it felt like every paragraph had to be particularly clever and for the reader, it gets a little exhausting. So much so I was tempted to skim a few parts 1/3 of the way through.
However, once I got to the halfway section I could not put it down which is high praise.
Examples of overworked writing:
“Word-magic comes at a cost, you see, as power always does. Words draw their vitality from their writers, and thus the strength of the a word is limited by the strength of its human vessel. Acts of word-magic leave their workers ill and drained and they more ambitious their working - the more it defies the warp and weft of the world as it is - the higher the toll. Most everyday sorts of word-workers lack the force of will to risk more than an occasional nosebleed and a day spent in bed, but. More gifted persons must spend years in careful study and training, learning restraint and balance, lest they drain away their very lives.”
Now this isn’t necessarily bad, it’s even a bit charming it just gets a little tedious as a reader to continually read paragraphs like this one after the other.
An example of wonderful prose:
“There was only one remarkable fact about the family: when Adelaide Lee was born, every last living Larson was female. Through poor luck, heart failure, and cowardice, their husbands and sons had left behind a collection of hard-jawed women who looked so similar to one another it was like seeing a single woman’s life spread out in every possible stage.”
I really do recommend this book. This is a talented writer who has written a truly imaginative novel and that is saying something in this time and age when stories all seem so similar.
I will definitely go out and get her next book.
Top international reviews
My thanks to Little Brown Book Group U.K./Orbit for an eARC via NetGalley of Alix E. Harrow’s historical fantasy, ‘The Ten Thousand Doors of January’, in exchange for an honest review.
This was a wonderful, deeply magical tale. I loved it so much and subsequently purchased both its hardback and audiobook editions. Its cover art is exquisite and provides a taste of what is to come when you open its pages.
It begins in 1901 and its narrator, seven-year old January Scaller, has grown up in Mr. Locke’s sprawling Kentucky mansion, which is filled with strange artefacts and treasures. January’s father, Julian, is travelling the world on behalf of Mr. Locke acquiring new treasures. When January turns seventeen she discovers a battered leather bound book inside a blue Egyptian chest located in Mr. Locke’s Pharaoh Room. Its cover is stamped in gold letters: ‘The Ten Thousand Doors’.
She describes its distinctive smell: “This one smelled unlike any book I’d ever held. Cinnamon and coal smoke, catacombs and loam. ..... It smelled like adventure itself had been harvested in the wild, distilled to a fine wine, and splashed across each page.”
This inspires January’s imagination and a number of times she references ‘Alice in Wonderland’ though reflects “People never got to stay in their Wonderlands, did they? Alice and Dorothy and the Darlings, all dragged back to the mundane world and tucked into bed by their handlers.” This certainly resonated with my own childhood feelings when enraptured by such stories.
Interspersed with January’s account are extracts from the book that tells tales of secret doors that link worlds and those gifted individuals who are able to open them becoming walkers between the worlds.
This is just a slight taste of the wonders within this superb coming of age story. It is an enchanting tale of folklore, magic, adventures, love, and myriad worlds. A literary fantasy that I fell completely in love with. Harrow writes beautifully and brings her characters and settings vividly to life.
I rather envy new readers who will have the adventure of discovering ‘The Ten Thousand Doors of January’ for the first time.
Very highly recommended.
Each to his own, I guess.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January is an interesting mix of fantasy, adventure, romance and historical fiction. At its heart it is a coming of age story, a story about a young lady discovering who she is and her place in the world, or perhaps I should say worlds. Race and social status also play important roles in the story, and in many ways the book is an ode to stories themselves and the power of words.
The prose and descriptions in this book are quite exquisite, however it is a slow read, the pace taking a while to pick up and for the story to really get going. Furthermore whilst I liked this book, I can't say that I loved it, and to be honest from the reviews I had read, I had been expecting something more.
Whilst the story is imaginative, with a lot of scope and potential, I'm not sure this was actually fully realized. Furthermore, for some reason I simply couldn't connect to any of the characters as well as I should have done, including January herself. I also wasn't that keen on the 'big bad' in the story, the reveal of which really wasn't that surprising, and which I had pieced together very early on.
Overall this was an interesting read, if a little bizarre at times. Alix Harrow has a lovely way with words, however I felt the central story itself was actually somewhat simplistic, albeit told in a very extended way.
Doors. Doors that we open and step through, ending one thing and starting another. A love that is true, that remains even when doors are closed or no longer exist and hope that never dies, but will one day lead to right door and the right place and back to where we belong. Now there are doors and there are Doors!
When I first started reading the story of January i got a little confused of who was who and who was where, but the more I read, the more the doors opened, and the more I wanted to keep reading. In the end, it was definitely worth persevering, the story is told through the opening and closing of Doors, not doors, but Doors. Doors that connect worlds and people and time and exist all over the world, if only you know where to look and to find them you need to believe they exist.
It reminds me of a dream i had several times as a child. I was in a house of doors and each door led me to some other place, some dark and foreboding and others full of sunshine and flowers.
Thankyou for sharing your tale 🤗🙏💕
Descriptions often conjured memories for me as I read, like the sculpted hunk of wood I found as a child, the wood that had been washed up on the beach, had been in the ocean a while and where soft summer growth had been dissolved leaving the harder winter growth rings standing prominent. That came to me when I read; -
“It was an old door, nothing but a series of gray planks so time-worn the grain of the wood had weathered into ridges like the whorls of fingerprints.”
There are many items of ‘it was LIKE’ too numerous to mention but I had a few favourites.
“Calluses knotted her palm LIKE a topographical map of a foreign country.” This took me back to all the maps I’d studied over years and also took me back to my frustrations as a writer, not being able to come up with such gems.
And who hasn’t woken in the morning, unable to describe themselves as feeling thus; -
“So when I opened my eyes – a process much LIKE pulling apart two caramels that have melted in your pocket…”
Do you have to be female to understand the feeling of; - “I shivered beside the fish-pale nakedness of two dozen other women, all of us mads ugly and unsecret, LIKE snails pulled from their shells.”
I guess I’ll think of that passage every time I’m in France eating garlic snails.
As mentioned at the beginning of this piece I found this book an experience and, if you look at my Goodreads “Top Ten Novels” It sits proudly there having knocked off Cal by Bernard MacLaverty – no mean feat. I see Alix E. Harrow as a poet that has turned to prose, I don’t know if that is true, but it certainly feels that way to me. Thank you Alix for a wonderful experience.
We start the book in 1901 with our narrator and central character, January Scaller. January has grown up in Mr Locke’s Kentucky mansion that is filled with artefacts and treasures. January’s Father, Jullian, works for Mr Locke, travelling the world collecting new treasures for Mr Locke’s collection. When January is accompanying Mr Locke on one of his travels, she discovers a strange Door that seems to lead to a different world and when she turns 17, she discovers an old leather bound book inside an Egyptian chest in one of the rooms of the mansion and here she learns of many Doors that exist to many worlds. Interspersed with January’s account are extracts from the actual book that tells tales of further secret doors and gifted individuals who are able to open them becoming walkers between the worlds.
It took me a while to get into this book, the storyline sounded so intriguing to me but I felt the writing was a bit stilted at first and I didn’t immediately bond to January. But, as I read more and time went on, I found myself being absorbed into the story and as I understood more about January, I began to like her and felt invested in her journey.
This book ended up being more than a fantasy read - it’s actually a really charming coming-of-age story. It’s an enchanting tale of folklore, magic, adventures, love, and myriad worlds. The writing flows well and I enjoyed the small references to the shapes of letters that start words. Harrow writes beautifully and brings her characters and settings vividly to life and it’s hard to believe that this is a debut. I am looking forward to her next book released later this year.
So whilst January is trying to understand why she never gets to see her father, who is always travelling on mysterious business. She also reads of the adventures of strangers in a book she found in the mansion of her father's employer.
The whole had a slight Erin Morgenstern feel. So if you liked Night Circus or Hidden Sea then this may appeal.
The action is realistic in the sense that pursuits and fights are not dramatic nor exciting. They are real and frightening. The world building has a touch of the Arabian Nights that made me wish to visit the island ocean world of Nim.
All round a decent book.
It was one of those books that I was sorry to reach the end of and considering that the story is not super long, this caught me by surprise. To become so enamoured with the characters that I was sad to reach the end of the story, was an unexpected gift. The connection that is. And to feel its touch long after I'd finished, dreaming about what-ifs and our own self created limitations and the wonders that would abound if we set ourselves free to question and explore, came as a surprise. Its like listening, or reading, an exceptionally well told story of the sea, so rich in description you're totally immersed and you could swear to smelling the lingering scent of sea and salt in the air. I hope this tale touches your spirit the way it has touched mine.
I also don't often read book blurbs, mainly because they can be a little misleading.
So I went into this book not knowing what I was in for.
What I ended up with was a love-hate relationship.
For me, the story really didn't start until the second half of the book, that's when things began to gather some pace and really started to happen.
I actually wanted to call it quits quite often early on because I was constantly thinking to myself that nothing was happening, or I should say the story wasn't really moving forward, and it was based in a time period that doesn't really interest me in a fictional sense. But I simply couldn't stop, this thing just kept drawing me back to it, and that was solely down to Alix's writing style. It's actually quite hypnotic. It's relaxing, warming and comforting. And I was really glad, in the end, that I continued to read because as I reached the last page I'd fully enjoyed the experience. And even though I'm suposed to be a macho type, at least that's what I keep telling myself, the tears were free-flowing on two notable occasions. (If you've already read this book then you know exactly which occasions they were)
So, if you're thinking of reading this book, DO IT! And stick with it, the journey is well worth your time.