The Ten Thousand Doors of January
by Alix E. Harrow
Expected Publication: September 10, 2019, from Redhook Books
The portal tale has been a staple of fantasy for decades. In this subgenre, a character– usually a young person– in the ordinary world opens a strange door, walks through it, and finds themself in a different and much stranger world. They have adventures there but they tend to return home in the end to discover that they are very different from when they left. In her debut novel, Hugo Award-winning author Alix E. Harrow* turns the standard portal fantasy askew, weaving a beautiful tale of two girls coming of age in different times and how their separate discoveries of strange doors changes their lives forever.
January Scaller lives in a sprawling mansion filled with antiquities from around the world. Though she is well-cared for and given everything she needs, January longs for a different life where she can see the world and meet people more interesting than the strict governess who oversees her education. One day she finds a strange book that smells of sea air and tells a story of magical doors, an undying love, and an adventure spanning this world and others. As she delves deeper into the book, she realizes that the world she knows is stranger than she ever imagined and that sinister forces are closer than she thinks. But January is not helpless. She is a clever girl who believes in herself, and with her beloved dog at her side and a pair of erstwhile allies, she sets out to discover the truth about Doors- and about herself.
“Now, I didn’t know about Doors at the time, and wouldn’t have believed you even if you’d handed me an annotated three-volume collection of eyewitness reports. but when I saw that raggedy blue door standing so lonesome in the field, I wanted it to lead someplace else. Someplace other than Ninley, Kentucky, someplace new and unseen and so vast I would never come to the end of it.”
With sumptuous prose that unfolds at a leisurely pace, Harrow builds her turn of the Twentieth-century world in such a way that everything seems so very ordinary. As a child visiting rural Kentucky with her guardian, Mr. Locke, January finds an odd door in a meadow. She opens it with the hope that she will find a different world behind it, but all she sees is more of the same old meadow. Disappointed and frightened by a subsequent encounter with a strange woman, January runs away and when Mr. Locke finds her again, he tells her he understands and that he wishes she would be a good girl. And so January spends the next ten years being the best little girl she can be until a strange book appears. The ideas it contains suggests that January’s childhood hopes were not unfounded, and this pushes her to start believing in herself again.
Mr. Locke is not the only man January looks up to. Her father, Julian Scaller, is Mr. Locke’s employee. He has spent most of January’s life traveling the world to find artifacts for Locke and his explorer’s club, some of which they sell and some of which they keep for themselves. The immorality of ransacking historical sites for profit is lost on January at first, though as she starts thinking for herself, she develops a moral ambiguity towards her guardian’s associates which grows into anger as she learns more about herself and the Doors she learns about in the book.
“… my long years of research have taught me that all stories, even the meanest folktales, matter. They are artifacts and palimpsests, riddles and histories. They are the red threads that we may follow out of the labyrinth.”
Harrow’s story is not a typical portal fantasy wherein the story’s hero goes through a door and emerges into an amazing adventure. While January finds Doors and discovers her own strengths and abilities, her adventure is an inner one. She must look inward to discover the woman she can be, and while secondary characters like Jane and Samuel have their own stories and help her as much as they can, January must draw upon her own strength to find her own path. This fact shows Harrow’s skill as a storyteller, given that she doesn’t take the obvious path. We all must find our own strengths and define our own stories before we can become the people we were meant to be. No one could have blamed Harrow for writing the obvious, but that would have made January and her story that much smaller. Instead, Harrow gives us a rich tale that encourages us to look beyond the ordinary and find a way to become the authors of our own stories.
Thank you to NetGalley and Redhook books for providing me with a free eBook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion.
*Harrow won the 2019 Hugo for Best Short Story for her story, ‘A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies’.