How is Alix E. Harrow this good a writer? Or maybe I should ask, how does Harrow know exactly what is my literary catnip? Because … wow. The Ten Thousand Doors of January continues my late 2022/2023 theme of reading stories about stories in a big way.
January Scaller grows up a ward of Mr. Cornelius Locke while her father travels the world and locates rare items for Locke’s collection. Initially imaginative and precocious, January eventually finds herself pressured by Locke and others to conform to the ideal, modern “good girl” of the early twentieth century. Yet as she enters her teens, January can’t help but shake that there is more out there for her to discover, if only she could find the right door to open. A book that appears in a chest—seemingly by magic—confirms her suspicion, confirms that there are in fact entire worlds to be discovered through the right doors. Before January can truly put this to the test, however, she finds herself embroiled in an age-old conspiracy to close all those doors—and it might just cost her, her father, and her closest friends their lives.
I just adore Harrow’s narrative style. She captures one of my favourite genres of fantasy—though this could technically be classed as young adult, I see it as an adult novel, yet it has the same kind of wide-eyed innocent atmosphere that a story for younger readers has. In this respect, Harrow is a worthy successor to Ursula K. Le Guin. I said it. Just as Le Guin created Earthsea (among other worlds) to explore coming of age, the power of names, and storytelling, so too does Harrow. January’s adventure is wide-ranging, and she changes so much from the beginning to the end of the story.
In fact, I want to talk about the ending (without going into spoilers). There is an epilogue that made me want to stand up and cheer, except I was in the bath at the time and standing up abruptly might have been a slip-and-fall risk. Basically, January throughout the book has hefty limitations on her power (both magical and mundane). By the end of the book, she has acquired true independence and agency—and she has also grown into her magical power in a way that is truly exciting to see. I would sell a piece of my soul for a sequel that follows grown-up January on her next adventure.
I cannot believe this is a debut novel. When I read The Once and Future Witches last year, I was excited to try out Harrow’s earlier work but nervous about whether it would live up to my expectations. If anything, Harrow exceeds them here—I might actually like this book better than her newer novel. In both cases, I would say the principal flaw is in the weak development of the antagonists. Once again, the nature of the main antagonist in this book is easy to discern if you’re even halfway paying attention. While Harrow attempts to portray him in a sympathetic light, and there’s certainly the same kind of theme of feminist empowerment moving through this plot as there is in The Once and Future Witches, ultimately the antagonist in this story just didn’t interest me all that much.
Fortunately, January’s characterization more than makes up for it. The way that Harrow talks about stories and words and writing more than makes up for it. The beauty of the love stories here—for there are many—more than makes up for it.
Indeed, I really appreciate how Harrow deals with romance. There is an upfront, honest digression about the nature of true love and how love is a process rather than event. January’s parents are separated for seventeen years, and it is painful and raw, and while the love abides, its shape stretches and attenuates over that time. It got me thinking, as a woman in her thirties, how my relationships with the people closest to me will shift with age and experience (and hopefully wisdom). Similarly, January’s own romantic arc is complex, problematized by her circumstances. It would have been so easy for Harrow to put January and her love interest together right away and make their love the deciding factor in January’s triumph. Harrow doesn’t take the easy route, though, and the book is so much better for it.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January is sumptuous, fastidious, expansive writing. I luxuriated in Harrow’s storytelling, lingered on her words, longed to explore the worlds she dangles in front of us like so many unreachable horizons. Did I mention I would like more books like this? Not an idle request. This is my jam.