It was fall 2019 when I first heard about The Ten Thousand Doors of January, the debut novel by Alix E. Harrow. It hadn’t been on my radar until Book of the Month included it as a selection that September, but the book instantly captured my attention.
Though it’s been on my shelf for a while now, this month felt like the perfect time to read it. What better month than January to read a novel whose titular character is named January? And it fits in my recent fixation on reading timely books, from One Day in December and Winterwood last month to the New Year’s settings of both The Hunting Party and This Time Next Year.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January follows 17-year-old January Scaller, a young woman living in a Vermont mansion with her wealthy guardian, Mr. Locke, in 1911. Her mother is gone, and her dad is constantly traveling the globe for work — he’s employed by her guardian, in fact — and January often feels out of place. Not just because of her illusory life of wealth, either; she’s also a woman of color with unclear, even mysterious roots. Mr. Locke often refers to her as “in-between.” But January longs for more: adventure, extra time with her absent father, a chance to feel free and rebellious.
One decade after accidentally stumbling across a door to another world, January learns two things in quick succession: One, her dad is missing, presumed dead. Two, that door she found in Kentucky 10 years before may have been real. In fact, it may hold the link between her mother, her father, and what’s gone on for her entire life. But when she reveals her knowledge of these doors, January is suddenly in grave danger.
Over the next several days — and with the help of her dog, her protector Jane, and her neighbor Samuel — January will overcome great obstacles to escape the villains after her, find her father, and discover the various hidden entryways to other worlds.
From the very first pages, The Ten Thousand Doors of January will strike you with its intricate, dreamy prose. January narrates her story with plenty of flourish, often pausing to admire how a capital letter looks or to slip into a small but relevant memory. She has a particularly strong and unique voice. It may take a bit of getting used to, but in a good way: Ultimately, it’s highly immersive and mesmerizing.
The story takes a bit of time to get going. The first couple of chapters provide plenty of buildup, from one day in Kentucky in 1901 through the next ten years of January’s life. These snapshots of her childhood help us get to know her personality (largely stifled by Locke), understand her relationship with her dad (sadly distant), and see the clues building up over the years. It’s not until she find a special book and learns of her father’s death that this story kicks into high gear. But once it does, hang on tight, because a lot happens!
In many ways, The Ten Thousand Doors of January feels like a love letter to fairytales and legends. Alix E. Harrow — via January — describes the importance of doors in stories. They’re a gateway from here to there, from then to now. They’re an important element of any story, and more so here. Indeed, there’s even implication that the doors in this novel may have given birth to all the fables and magical stories we’ve ever heard.
We also get a sort of book within a book, a trope I generally love. The author of The Ten Thousand Doors may be set up as a sort of mystery, but I admit that I knew who it was immediately. Even so, this six-chapter mini-book is an integral part of setting up this story, introducing the past with depth but intrigue. As January reads through it, it becomes clear not just what lurks in her past, but also the danger in those she thought she could trust now.
Alix E. Harrow does a wonderful job of world building here, adding in new layers bit by bit until we’ve tumbled into a fully magical landscape. It all comes about very organically, letting readers acclimate as new fantasy elements come into play. What starts off as a simple American setting, circa 1911, turns into a world — or multiple worlds — with limitless possibilities. Word magic, invisibility, immortality? All’s fair game here.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January examines several deep subjects. How far would you go for love? How far would you go to find home? Are you willing to give up everyone and everything for one person? Or does love for family also prevail? Love, family, and home are all at the root of most of the book, moving from optimistically exhilarating to painfully heartbreaking.
More questions this book poses: What do you do when someone you trusted turns on you? Love and trust are often tied up, but how do you know it’s real? Does a person really love you and want to keep you safe? What if their idea of protecting you means you’re stifled and caged? Can you ever learn to hate someone after years of trust?
Another theme here is racism and xenophobia. January and her father are not white, which can spell danger in 1911 America (or, unfortunately, most any time and place). Further, January’s dad has an accent. But it’s always not clear to others how to classify Julian and January — nonwhite, sure, but what kind? Note, though, that this is not an #OwnVoices book. Alix E. Harrow is a white woman, but she writes this novel with care and respect. She notes instances of racist treatment, and notes how perhaps Locke sees January as an exotic part of his collection.
Through all of the twists and turns, through all of the betrayals and dangers, I love that January remains a strong character. If anything, she actually grows stronger and braver as the story progresses. She has help from other characters, certainly, and it proves to be crucial more times than one. But ultimately, January shines as her own hero, and maybe a hero for others, too.
The novel has a great ending, wrapping things up just enough to feel satisfied, but also leaving the door (get it?) open for more. While there’s currently no sequel planned that I know of, it’d be exciting to follow January’s story into more worlds.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a gorgeous, evocative, and thought-provoking fantasy with plenty of magic and adventure. It dives into the meaning of family and love, and the lengths we’ll go to protect both. This is a wonderful debut, and I can’t wait to read more from Alix E. Harrow. I’m already eyeing her recent second book, The Once and Future Witches, which came out in October. It looks like her next book, a novella called A Spindle Splintered, is due out this coming October, too. Stay tuned for my reviews of both!
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