Title: The Ten Thousand Doors of January (2019)
Author: Alix E. Harrow
Publisher: Little, Brown
Read: 2nd – 5th September 2019
Genre: historical fiction; fantasy
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
“In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored and utterly out of place. But her quiet existence is shattered when she stumbles across a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page reveals more impossible truths about the world, and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.” (Synopsis from publisher)
Let us address the elephant in the room first: this book’s design is incredibly beautiful and I’m so thrilled to be able to say that the contents, in my opinion, match the exterior. Alix E. Harrow’s debut is beautiful, adventurous, and compelling; there was an undefinable, spell-binding quality that had me practically inhaling this book, it was only the fact I was on holiday with family that stopped me from consuming it greedily in one sitting, to be honest. Set in New England, at the turn of the twentieth century, The Ten Thousand Doors of January tells the story of January Scaller, a plucky child and later strong young woman with an insatiable curiosity for doors, books, and the adventures lurking behind both. January’s father is forever off on far-flung adventures on behalf of his employer, Mr Locke, the mysterious and wealthy man who acts as January’s guardian in his absence, giving her a comfortable home in his sprawling house and introducing her to the sort of society that surrounds a man of his stature.
“There was no room, it turned out, for little girls who wandered off the edge of the map and told the truth about the mad, impossible things they found there.“
I didn’t quite expect this book to have such a serious socio-political message underneath it all. As well as pointing to heavy topics of migration, belonging, and not quite fitting into the culture which you are inhabiting (January is biracial and experiences the discrimination associated to her skin colour whilst also being afforded the privileges of status that being Mr Locke’s ward brings) the book also addresses the idea of colonialism and imperialism and the tendency of imperial nations (or figures) to conquer and then claim artefacts and treasures as their own. At several moments in this story, January’s guardian, Mr Locke, collects rare antiques (of a sort) and the novel doesn’t shy away from discussing the problematic aspects to this sort of “acquisition” which was historically undertaken by very wealthy men who wanted rare objects for their own collections which were then used as a marker of their desired social status. The society of such gentlemen that Mr Locke is part of also seems to treat January herself as something of a curiosity, and her upbringing and education is figured as something of a “civilising experiment” by such men. I appreciated that the novel grappled with this historical undercurrent because I wasn’t necessarily expecting it to explore such issues and found myself pleasantly surprised that it took the time to do so in such a brutally honest way.
“we address stories as archaeological sites, and dust through their layers with meticulous care, we find at some level there is always a doorway. A dividing point between here and there, us and them, mundane and magical. It is at the moments when the doors open, when things flow between the worlds, that stories happen.”
As well as having swashbuckling adventure and moments of tension, the story also had a really genuine heart underneath it all and a soft humour that had be smiling throughout. The narrative voice was witty and easily likeable and it certainly helps readers to immediately empathise with, and root for, the protagonist, the eponymous January Scaller. January is built in the familiar moulds of adventurous heroines from childhood stories, she’s Alice searching for Wonderland, she’s Lucy discovering Narnia, she’s Lyra clambering over the rooftops of Jordan College, and this element not only made me feel strangely nostalgic for all of those stories I loved when I was younger but also made me feel as though I knew January already. As she grows and matures and sees more of the world (both the good and the bad), a reader can’t help but go along her journey with her, especially as her own story and the story contained within the mysterious book The Ten Thousand Doors intertwine.
“insofar as it was possible to love someone so naturally comfortable in three-piece suits, I loved him.”
In conclusion, The Ten Thousand Doors of January is absolutely a book lover’s dream – it is a love letter to magical doors, to unexpected adventure, to the power of words, to the way storytelling can transport you in time and place to far-flung lands and experiences both so foreign to (and yet somehow still rooted in) your own life. For anyone who still hopes to find a little bit of the fantastical in everyday life, for the dreamers who always wanted to stumble into Narnia, this book will be a pure delight.
“But you still know about Doors, don’t you? Because there are ten thousand stories about ten thousand Doors, and we know them as well as we know 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.”
Thank you to Little, Brown/Orbit for kindly providing me with an eARC of the book via NetGalley – I greatly appreciate the opportunity to read and review titles prior to their release, but this does not affect my overall opinion or review of the book itself.
Disclaimer: The quotes above are taken from the eARC and may differ slightly from the final version in the printed book.