“Doors are many things: fissures and cracks, ways between, mysteries and borders. But more than anything else, doors are change.“
Author: Alix E. Harrow
Publication Date: September 10, 2019
Genre: Portal fantasy, historical fiction, young adult
Rating: 5/5 stars
Reading this book is like walking through a capital-D Door, out of this world and into an adjacent one filled with so much heart, magic, and mystery.The Ten Thousand Doors of January is the sort of book that you finish and say, “I can’t believe this is the author’s first novel.” It’s a lyrical, lovely fusion of historical fiction and portal fantasy—a combination that, frankly, has no right to work as well as it does.
So, what is it about? Our story focuses on seventeen-year-old January Scaller, a biracial girl growing up in the early twentieth century. She lives with the imposing Mr. Locke, a collector of rarities who loves order but is not unkind. Her father Julian is largely absent from her life, traversing the globe to find treasures to bring back for Mr. Locke, and January spends her time split between reading fantastical stories and performing the duties expected of a proper young lady. But she is not entirely alone; she finds company in her friend Samuel, her governess Jane, and her dog Bad (short for Sinbad; both of these names fit him astoundingly well).
January’s childhood is sprinkled with small bits of magic—stumbling upon a Door to another world, writing words that magically come true, objects mysteriously appearing in a chest in Mr. Locke’s house—but she largely ignores them to please Mr. Locke. But when her father goes missing, presumed dead, January is dissatisfied with the explanations she is given. Armed with only a silver coin and a book that tells her stories of Doors like the one she found as a child, she sets out to escape from Locke’s influence and find out what, exactly, happened to her father.
I know, this explanation sounds fairly simple, but believe me when I say this is a story full of layers. It is an adventure, a girl traveling not just the country but multiple worlds. It is a coming-of-age story, a young woman discovering herself, realizing she isn’t a child anymore, but also that magic doesn’t have to go away just because you’ve grown up. It is a family story, a father and a daughter seeking each other across the globe and other universes. It is a love story, not just from its hint of romance, but from the fierce loyalties that its characters hold to each other, no matter how hard external forces may try to separate them.
“I happen to believe every story is a love story if you catch it at the right moment, slantwise in the light of dusk.”
These characters are so full of life and distinct personalities, I kind of want to hug all of them. The innocent but unflinching love Samuel holds for January, as a friend (and, later, more…) is so pure, it actually made me smile. He is the sort of boy who would go to the ends of the earth for someone he cares about, even if he didn’t have a plan or a penny to his name—he would try to swim the oceans, if that’s what he thought it would take. Jane, the governess sent by January’s father to take care of her, has a secret fierceness that emerges over the course of the book that is pretty damn amazing. January convinces her to start reading penny dreadfuls and other sensational pieces of fiction, and the two form a sort of friendship over their love of books. And as one of the only other people of color in January’s life, Jane also serves as something of a role model for her. Even Bad, though he is just a dog (definitely a Good Boi™) and therefore can’t speak, shows his love in his own way. A stellar judge of character, and armed with a bite that is just as strong as his bark, he is January’s constant companion and sometimes confidant.
“One does not fall in love; one discovers it.”
Of course, January herself, as the beating heart of the story, is a true force to be reckoned with. She grapples a lot with the idea of who she is—with being not-white-enough in a world where race is considered a big deal, with being a polite and demure foster child when she really wants to explore the world, with the conflict between loyalty to her family and loyalty to the man who raised her—and the resulting emotional dissonance feels incredibly real. Watching her grow from a barely-contained spark to a wildfire of a person, alive with her own dreams and goals, is a fantastic process to watch, and her narration is quirky-yet-elegant, perfectly bringing the story to life.
Oh, the writing! I don’t even fully know where to begin with it, except to say that it is gorgeous and vibrant, sometimes hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking, reading like something you would expect to find in an old fairytale or some classic work of literature. The images Harrow paints and the comparisons she draws are wholly original and wholly engrossing. From capturing the pain of grief —
“It isn’t pain or suffering that unmakes a person; it’s only time. Time, sitting on your breastbone like a black-scaled dragon, minutes clicking like claws across the floor, hours gliding past on sulfurous wings.”
to comically representing a bland butler’s personality —
“It was Mr. Sterling, sounding as usually like a typewriter that had somehow learned to walk and talk.”
— she makes words spring to life from the page. I had to restrain myself from digitally highlighting something on almost every-other page.
People often talk about feeling like a book transported them somewhere else, but in the case of The Ten Thousand Doors of January, it actually happens. I sometimes found it hard to believe that these words were just ink on paper, come from the mind of some other person, and not threads tapped from the fibers of the universe. That sounds cheesy, I know, but in the book, there is a city where written words carry actual power, and this book could have come straight from that world. I’m absolutely in love with Harrow’s use of language, and I think that is what made this book really stand out for me. She could write the ingredients list for bran flakes and I would read it eagerly, hanging onto every word.
There is so much to love about this book, more than I can convey in this review. Suffice to say that this is one of my favorite reads of this year, and I cannot recommend it enough—for lovers of fairytales, character development, beautiful writing, and above all, for those looking for an escape from this chaotic, often-disheartening world, into one with a little more magic—a little more hope.
A parting quote, embodying this sentiment—and this book—in more ways than one:
“How fitting, that the most terrifying time in my life should require me to do what I do best: escape into a book.”
Trigger/content warnings: involuntary hospitalization, self-injury (for purposes of magic)
Thank you to the publisher for providing me with an eARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. As this review is from an advance copy, all quotations are subject to change in the final version.