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THE TEN THOUSAND DOORS OF JANUARY

by Alix E. Harrow

Alix E. Harrow
Alix E. Harrow
Orbit Books
 384 Pages
  
B+
The Ten Thousand Doors of January
The concept of a door to another world has been a popular one in science fiction and fantasy for well over a century. Beginning with the rabbit hole in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and including the more literal wardrobe door in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, intrepid fictional explorers have gone through these portals and emerged in all sorts of fantastic worlds. To those numbers, we can now add January Scaller, who finds not one, but many doors to other planets in author Alix E. Harrow’s enchanting debut novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January.
 
The doors referred to in the book’s title are literal doors, of all shapes and sorts, and there are many of them hidden all over the world, usually in obscure locations. People go through them in the usual manner and emerge in a distant planet. Fortunately, this being fantasy instead of science fiction, they don’t wind up someplace like the surface of Pluto, which would make for a very short book. Also, this being fantasy, the author doesn’t attempt much of an explanation, which would only slow the book down and break the mood.
 
And mood is what The Ten Thousand Doors of January is all about. January is a precocious girl in the early 1900s who grows from seven to seventeen or so over the course of the novel. Her mother died when January was young, and her father was subsequently given a job by Cornelius Locke, an eccentric multimillionaire. Locke’s passion in life is collecting rare items on behalf of the New England Archaeological Society, so he hires January’s father to find such artifacts for him. Since that job sends Dad to distant lands for months on end, Locke takes January in as his unofficial ward. Accompanying Locke on his travels leads to January discovering a Door (January capitalizes the word to distinguish it from an ordinary door) for the first time at the age of seven. She then goes through the Door for a few moments, but the experience shapes the rest of her life.
 
On the surface, The Ten Thousand Doors of January might seem to resemble a pre-World War I version of Little Orphan Annie (January even has a dog named Bad that accompanies her on many of her journeys), but Locke is no Daddy Warbucks. His relationship towards January varies between admiration and heartless callousness, and some of the members of the Society with whom he hobnobs are decidedly nasty sorts. To get away from the pain in her life, January soon retreats to what becomes her passion, reading. One book, in particular, an odd volume called The Ten Thousand Doors, which she stumbles across one day, becomes her favorite. The Ten Thousand Doors is the story of a woman, who, like January, found some Doors decades earlier, something with which January instantly identifies. 
 
The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a book filled with twists and surprises (most of which aren’t too difficult to anticipate) and delights (which often spring from entirely unexpected places). For that reason, I don’t want to give away too much concerning what the book is about. Instead, it’s easier to give a few details about what it’s not about. The worlds that January encounters aren’t described in the extravagant detail with which Lewis Carroll and C.S. Lewis acquaint readers about Wonderland and Narnia. Nor is The Ten Thousand Doors of January a series of Star Trek-like adventures on exciting and dangerous new planets. Instead, Alix Harrow gives readers just enough detail of a handful of worlds to suggest the vast possibilities of what lies beyond the Doors. She also drops hints that much of what we believe of as myth and magic are, instead, forces and beings from those other worlds that have “leaked” into ours. 
 
While fantasy is indeed an element of The Ten Thousand Doors of January, the book is more concerned with the power of words and, to steal a phrase, the joys of reading and of writing. As she grows older, January discovers that written words can have powers of their own, and that discovery helps her do battle with the various evils that she periodically comes across. 
 
For a book like The Ten Thousand Doors of January to work, its author has to have a certain dexterity with words, and Harrow does. While I didn’t believe that even a precocious girl of seventeen, let alone seven, could pen something like January’s supposed memoir, Harrow’s descriptions of what January encounters and the discussions of the girl’s thought processes are frequently captivating. Occasionally, there’s a bit too much aimless description, and the story then drags a bit, but, for the most part, this book is simply a joy to go through and savor the exact words and phrasing that the author uses. I could easily fill this review with excerpts from the novel, but one example will have to suffice. When January first discovers The Ten Thousand Doors, she describes its unique smell as: “Cinnamon and coal smoke, catacombs and loam. Damp seaside evening and sweat-slick noontimes beneath palm fronds. It smelled as if it had been in the mail for longer than any one parcel could be, circling the world for years and accumulating layers of smells like a tramp wearing too many clothes.”
 
It takes considerable effort to come up with descriptions like this, yet Harrow does so over and over again, on nearly every page. The net result is a book that, even when nothing seems to be happening, is a delight merely for the enjoyment of how it is written. Actually, Harrow’s work is two books in one, alternating between the story of the earlier explorer (a book-within-a-book that even has its own set of footnotes) and January’s recollections. In the wrong hands, this type of storyline could turn into a complete mess, but Harrow keeps everything relatively easy to follow, and the switching between the two works proves highly revelatory, for both January and the reader.

When most people think of fantasy nowadays, they think of Game of Thrones-like tales of wizards and dragons. But The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a story of what might be right around the corner, if we could only recognize it, and of the power of words and language, as wielded by one young girl and one talented novelist, to bring those hidden Doors to light right in front of a reader’s eyes. The word “compelling” is often overused and clichéd in book reviews, but The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a story that keeps readers in its grasp for nearly 400 pages. At the end of that journey, the reader’s only regret will be that he or she didn’t get to open more of those Doors.

Alix E. Harrow is a former teacher, part-time historian, and full-time reader, with stories published in Shimmer, Strange Horizons, Tor.com, and Apex. Her work has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is her debut novel. Alix's love of books comes naturally; she has library cards in at least five states. She currently lives with her husband and two children in Berea, KY.

 

Follow her on Twitter @alixeharrow / Instagram: @alix.e.harrow / website: alixeharrow.wixsite.com/author  / Amazon author page: https://amzn.to/2mKg1PC

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