Well, the Hugo Awards came and went this weekend, and I never did get around to writing up reviews for all the Best Novel nominees beforehand – oops! The winner, for the curious, was A Memory Called Empire, which I wrote a review for here. However, the playing field was really hyper-competitive this year, and I really owe it to the nominees to write my thoughts about them as well
Alix Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January has to be commended for having some of the richest and compelling prose of any novel I’ve read in the last year. While absolutely stunning for a debut novel, this shouldn’t have been surprising – Harrow has already seen considerable recognition for her previous short story A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies. This make s the books a pleasure to read, and definitely makes it a book of its length more accessible to the average reader than it otherwise would have.
For anyone who has read A Witch’s Guide to Escape, you would know that the author has a deep love for libraries, books and the power of storytelling. The latter especially shines through in The Ten Thousand Doors of January, where the power of stories is literally magic.
The January of the title is January Scaller, a young mixed-race woman who’s lives a well-appointed, if somewhat restricted life, under the care of a wealthy landowner – Mr Locke – while her archeologist father travels the world on behalf of New England Archeological Society. While January doesn’t want for material possessions living under Mr Locke’s roof, she feels emotionally adrift; she feels the absence of her father deeply, while also slowly realising as a non-white girl growing up wealthy in early 20th Vermont, she doesn’t really fit into any particular aspect of society. So January, a vicarious reader, often escapes the inanity of her day-to-day life by burying herself in books.
However, after hearing about her father’s disappearance while travelling in Japan, January seeks condolence in q particular book that is notably stranger than the others. This small, hand-bound book – “The Ten Thousand Doors” – initially masquerades as a primer written by a scholar concerning the portals that allow travel between worlds. This piques January’s interest immensely because as a young child, she believed she had an encounter with such a Door, but was instructed by Mr Locke to forget about it. But as she starts reading, this is revealed to be a facade. Instead, this book contains the story of Adelaide Lee Larson, a strong-willed girl who falls for a boy from another world and devotes her life to trying to have as many adventures as possible while trying to find him again.
While this book-within-a-book structure could quickly wear on a reader, Alix Harrow handles it beautifully, and it quickly becomes clear that Adelaide is almost as much of a protagonist as January. And while it quickly becomes clear to the reader that the two stories are intertwined, and that the life of Adelaide Lee will impact January as she tries to navigate her standing in the world in her father’s absence, it is not immediately clear how things will play out.
While there is plenty more that could be written about the plot, it’s all highly spoiler-sh, and you’ll have to read it for yourself to find out what happens.
The book isn’t exactly flawless, but most of my issues were not huge: I wasn’t at all keen on the repetition of certain motifs in the book, which probably stood out to me more because I was listening to the Audiobook version. And while most of the main characters are very well realised (including one who spends most of their time ‘off-screen’, making it quite a feat in writing) a number of the supporting characters seemed more like sketches, which was slightly disappointing.
But overall, this was an absolutely lovely book that gave me a great deal of satisfaction when I reached the end. Alix Harrow didn’t end up carrying the Best Novel award away with her this year, but I would be shocked if she doesn’t eventually manage it.
(Also, I really have to praise January LaVoy for her narration of the audiobook – her performance was up there with Moira Quirk’s for Gideon the Ninth. Another name that might tip the scales towards me getting an audiobook version of something int he future)
EDIT: Weeell, somebody forgot to do the Bingo, didn’t they? Big old D for Debut novel here.
And D for Dumbarse