Author: Alix E. Harrow (twitter)
UK Publisher: Orbit
Genre: Historical fantasy
EVERY STORY OPENS A DOOR
In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored and utterly out of place.
But her quiet existence is shattered when she stumbles across a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page reveals more impossible truths about the world, and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.
From the blurb, this book sounds like it will be a little like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or The Magician’s Nephew, a story about curious children and magical doors, taking them from their stuffy house into different worlds where they find new and strange adventures. It sounds like the work of C.S. Lewis, or even something from Edith Nesbit’s Five Children and It series. Old fashioned and charming, magical and adventurous, reminding me of autumn evenings with a roast dinner and the Sunday evening family literary adaptation that the BBC used to do.
This book is so much more than that. There are recurring themes of ownership, of colonialism, freedom, and race amongst other things. Rather than being a flight of fancy to different worlds but returning home in time for supper, this book is grounded very much in this world, and the adventure is about escaping from the shackles imposed upon an individual by society. It’s a romance, of sorts, but not for the titular January.
There are two intertwining stories – that of January, and that of Yule Ian and Adelaide. January is trapped in the dubious care of Mr Locke while her father travels the world, left only with her own imagination and, eventually, a temperamental dog for company. Adelaide is a young girl from the rural southern states of America, who dreams of freedom and travel, and one day meets a strange black boy in her field, who appears to have come through a mysterious door. Yule Ian and Adelaide become besotted with each other on that one day, but then are parted and have to find their way back together. January reads their story when she finds the book The Ten Thousand Doors, and realises it has parallels with her own.
Set in the early 1900s in America, January describes herself as an “in-between” person. She’s black, but she’s also not because Mr Locke lends her credibility and a social “whiteness”. But she’s also not as dark as her father, she’s mixed race, and has been raised “white”, so when she’s around other black people she still feels like an outsider. The nature of the book means there’s a lot of talk of duality, of thresholds, and of two different worlds. These are dealt with both metaphorically and literally, and the fact that January’s struggle between what Mr Locke wants her to be and what she wants to be; what society sees her as and what she is; and her parents from two radically different worlds (particularly in the time and location) is played out alongside the driving plot really provides a wonderful thematic mirror.
I found the opening a little difficult to track, because it jumped between different ages of January for a bit, and I got a little muddled, but once January hit 17 and discovered the book things settled down and I was able to follow things because they generally tumbled chronologically together. I also found Yule Ian and Adelaide’s story easier to follow once it dropped the pretence of being an academic study and instead became a biography. Reading on a kindle isn’t the greatest for books which have footnotes, so it felt a little staccato until I passed that section.
One thing I found interesting was that, although we are given the impression that there are countless doors (ten thousand, in the book, being given as a number so big it is uncountable, and thus meaning infinite), Harrow doesn’t get distracted by describing all of them. January herself only actually goes through two in the narrative, although another character describes one in detail, and we hear snippets about others. The concept is easily one which could make a narrative more winding and unwieldy, so Harrow’s decision to keep the plot tight and focused really helps the book flow and not get bogged down in continually re-establishing the location. It also leaves things open for further exploration in a possible sequel.
While the book resolves itself and answers most of the questions pertaining to January, Adelaide, and Yule Ian, it leaves plenty of answers open for further investigation. What happens to Jane and Samuel? What about the rest of the Archaeological Society? Is January ever really free and safe? But despite leaving some threads slightly loose for picking up in the future, the book still resolves itself well and doesn’t feel open-ended. It feels poetic more than anything, with the light touch it’s given, and also thematic – the whole point of the book is that doors should be left open for future travels, so giving the plot a more definite ending would be counter to the message of the whole story.
I’ll admit at times I found January a little frustrating, as she seems committed to denying things which seemed obvious to me as a reader. It made sense for her character, and is narratively sensible, but at times it was maddening because it kept dragging her back into danger. This was a definite case of narrative irony making things a little agonising for the reader, but at the same time her hope and belief did make me wish that she was right, and that I had misunderstood what was happening. She was so earnest it made me want her to be right.
It’s really quite a lovely book, and everything is placed so delicately that it feels very gentle in its delivery. Harrow has a beautiful style which means that nothing seems overly described or laboured, she has faith in the ability of her reader to piece things together, and she doesn’t make a show out of big reveals. This means the narrative flows smoothly and is quite a pleasure to read.
- A book that is all at once expansive and personal, it has a sweeping love story that is handled with beautiful delicacy, and a tale of finding yourself and your personal freedom.
- While race is clearly not ignored in the book, it is also not the focal point. Harrow doesn’t pretend racism doesn’t exist in historical USA, but she doesn’t let that define or distract from her character’s story.
- This is a period book but it almost feels timeless, strangely distinct from worldly concerns and instead looking both more internally than daily life, and far further afield than simply planet Earth. It’s a strange balancing act, but it’s done very, very well.
Rating: 5/5 – I wouldn’t be sorry to spend more time with this book, but at the same time I also think the open ending works beautifully if no more books are forthcoming.