The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow

I received an ARC of this book from the publishing company Orbit in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Somehow, this book managed to plunge a hand deep into my childhood, root around, and pull out all that nostalgia-inducing wonder exactly.

January Scaller is a young mixed-race woman in early 1900s America. Her father travels the world collecting wondrous curiosities for his wealthy patron Mr Locke, a member of the New England Archaeological Society. While her father is away, January lives in Mr Locke’s mansion: well-cared for but desperately lonely. As a child she discovers a Door leading to Elsewhere, but soon starts to believe she imagined it. Then, when she’s 17, her father goes missing and January discovers her childhood Door may not be the only one.

If you’ll allow me an intensely unrelatable anecdote… So, the USSR and post-USSR countries were very, ah, loose about copyright law. I grew up not with Dorothy but with Ellie Smith, whose slightly re-written Wizard of Oz came with five original sequels. And in the 90s, an exciting new 11-book sequel series about Ellie, written by yet another author, started coming out. Then we moved to the US, and I found out Ellie’s name was actually Dorothy and that she’d been made up by F.L. Baum and not A.M. Volkov. And also, to my great astonishment, that there were 13 more sequels.

Reading The Ten Thousand Doors of January has given me the bizarre, off-putting, and wonderful feeling that I’ve found a fourth version, written by Alix E. Harrow, and her name is actually neither Ellie nor Dorothy, but January.

I don’t mean that The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a children’s book. But there is something magically old-fashioned about it. Both the characters and plot are straightforward and fun; the romance is adorable in that first-time-love way; the fantasy aspect feels limitless and wondrous; and the whole book is seeped deep in old-fashioned Americana. Whatever book-inspired delights you felt as a kid, whether it was scouring the book bazaar in the summer heat or curling up all rainy afternoon with a library book, Harrow aims to bring back.

It does update the familiar tropes to the 21st century however. Unlike many older works, it doesn’t shy away from examining race and gender. Although Mr Locke basically treats her as his foster daughter, most people in January’s everyday life do not fully accept her because of her skin colour. There is also a theme of anti-imperialism intertwined with the Archaeological Society, as January’s father steals priceless objects, basically people’s history, from around the world for it. I thought The Ten Thousand Doors of January struck a great balance between keeping the overall tone of the works it draws on while thematically exploring current ideas.

Speaking of other books, the power of stories is another important theme. January escapes her confines sometimes through Doors, and sometimes simply into books. A large chunk of the book is a story-within-the-story. That always takes me some time to warm up to, but it works well here. Fittingly, the prose is gorgeous, particularly the descriptions of other worlds. Here’s January trying to describe her first experience through a Door:

“I–I was just playing and I went through this door, see, and it leads to someplace else. There was a white city by the sea.” If I’d been older, I might’ve said: It smelled of salt and age and adventure. It smelled like another world, and I want to return right this minute and walk through those strange streets. Instead, I added articulately, “I liked it.”

And now after all that raving, I have to be a stick-in-the-mud and admit that I have problems with the book’s core concept. Doors are change, Doors lead to revolution, says the book both metaphorically and literally. The metaphoric version is beautiful: reading, dreaming, letting yourself imagine a different world can lead you to want to better the one you live in. Literally though, multiple characters mention that revolutions can only happen if somebody slips through a Door, and one character describes outright that that’s how the Indian Rebellion of 1857 started. Because of how central the Doors are, the book ends up with the idea that rebelling against an oppressive system can only happen through outside, magical interference. I find that uncomfortable on multiple levels. (Though I would tear through The Ten Thousand Doors of Mao Zedong on release day.)

In short then, I recommend The Ten Thousand Doors of January to everyone but stick-in-the-muds wholeheartedly, and I recommend it to us stick-in-the-muds with caveats. Find a long, sunny afternoon, crack open the book, and slip inside!

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