I’ve had Ten Thousand Doors of January for months but postponed reading it as I’d recently finished Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series and felt my portal fantasy quota had been met for the year. However I’m glad I picked it up as part of my Hugo Award readathon for #Readerswithoutborders, as it’s a completely different take on magical doorways.
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The Ten Thousand Doors of January is set after the turn of the 20th century, in a time of peace and progress when trade and exploration highlight the vastness of the world while simultaneously making it feel smaller. January is the young ward of Mr William Cornelius Locke, living on his Vermont estate while her father is paid to travel to remote parts of the world, seeking rare and exotic items to add to Mr Locke’s collection.
“When you travel with money, you follow a smooth, well-worn path through the world. Wood-panelled train cars lead to shiny black cabs, which lead to hotel rooms with velvet curtains, each step effortlessly following the last.“
While January grows up living a comfortable life and is often permitted to accompany Mr Locke on his business trips, she has a wild and imaginative spirit, impatient for bigger adventures, and so struggles to maintain her patron’s idea of a perfect society girl.
When January finds a mysterious book containing stories of portals and a woman who bravely travels between them, it inspires her to finally embrace her imagination and her true self, triggering a series of events theat will reveal just how much she shares with the woman and her magical doors.
The hour-dragons stalked me. They grew larger as the sun set, multiplying in the shadows.
Harrow is a master of metaphor and simile. She uses glittering prose that speaks to all five senses and dry, whimsical observations that often put a smile on my face.
“My dress that year was a shapeless froth of pink ribbons and frills that made me look like a rather sulky cupcake.”
This book is worth a read purely to experience her writing style.
At first I thought this was going to be a period book to enjoy leisurely, perhaps while sitting under a parasol on a grassy knoll, eating fresh cucumber sandwiches. But what begins as a simple story about the desire for freedom of expression becomes about so many other things; love, greed, control, and the power of change. Vivid characters bring a truthful perspective to childhood, parenthood, fatherhood, motherhood and even interdimensional ‘hoods.
One of very few problems I had with this book is that the depiction of 20th century racism seemed slightly gauche in the absence of any other devices used to reflect the time period of the book, apart from lists of historical events at the beginning of the early chapters. Harrow’s dialogue feels anachronistic in comparison to books like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell or The Memoirs of Lady Trent series, which have a more authentic rather than modern vibe. Having said that, I know that Harrow is a historian in African American history and has the knowledge to support writing accurately about these topics, and it makes sense to write what you know (edit upon publishing post: I wrote this last month before Black Lives Matter was frequently talked about on book blogs and Twitter. I’m in the process of educating myself, and I understand that white authors can still write validly about racism, and that its better that Harrow chose to be historically accurate about racism if not other aspects of the novel, perhaps even doing so to bring these themes into the spotlight).
I also wish there was a more stylistic distinction between Harrow’s narration and that of her characters’, given her choice to include entire chapters from January’s book, and to use multiple POVs from characters with very different backgrounds. These were minor observations that only held the book back from being a perfect experience, perhaps spawned in the fog of nightshift-grumpiness through which I read it.
Overall, like many other readers I adored the Ten Thousand Doors of January. It’s such a fantastic and emotional journey, and includes one of the most realistic, moving and gender-stereotype-free romances I can recall reading in fiction.
See that capital ‘O’? Like the yawning mouth of a portal to another world, summoning you to an adventure? I suggest you step through it.
Trigger warning: Please note that this book contains cutting/self-harm