Saturday 15 August 2020

Gateway to Adventure

“It is at the moments when the doors open, when things flow between the worlds, that stories happen.” 
— Alix E. Harrow

Coming of age stories and portals to other worlds are featured in many fantastic tales. Wardrobes to
Cover art by Lisa
Marie Pompilio. 
(Image via
Narnia, rabbit holes to Wonderland, or — as is the case in Alix E. Harrow’s debut novel — Doors to a myriad of places and cultures. And, naturally, exploration beyond these portals provides opportunities for change and growth.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a love letter to the portal fantasy, which itself comes on the heels Harrow’s Hugo-winning short-story A Witch's Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies (2018). The novel follows the story of January Scaller — a lonely, nearly-orphan girl growing up in New England affluence at the turn of the 20th Century. Her adventures and salvation revolve around an absentee father, a mysterious book, and a series of Doors connecting her world to innumerable others.

Although our book club met and discussed The Ten Thousand Doors of January prior to the Hugo voting deadline, we struggled to find a consensus opinion on the novel. Certainly, the fact that it has prompted weeks worth of discussion and analysis for our book club points to the fact that it is a rich text.

Despite the ubiquitous use of portals in fantasy, Harrow’s interpretation of the door/portal as a crucible for change does offer readers something novel. It is clear throughout the novel that Harrow’s Doors and the worlds they divide are a metaphor for relations of power and the points of tension within their inversions. Unsurprisingly, then, Ten Thousand Doors features an innocent, strong, and worthy protagonist in January. Through the privilege of her captive upbringing she is able to peer inside the power structures that keep her from the love of her family and her own self-actualization. Where January’s captors (those in power) seek to preserve and build control, Doors are closed and lives are lost. Put another way, the powerful are able to make decisions that impact the vulnerable… until our hero finds a way to break this pattern. January’s inherited and emergent weapon is both satisfying and novel: the written word shaped into narrative, imbued with desperate confidence.
For a debut novel, Ten Thousand Doors
is remarkably accomplished. We look 
forward to reading further works by 
Alix E. Harrow. 
(Image via

Ten Thousand Doors is an excellent debut novel but not without its issues. Some members of the book club found it to be a mixed reading experience, while others loved it. The reflective and descriptive writing is consistently strong and most were amused by the occasional nod to academic writing. Some readers who don’t normally gravitate to fantasy novels found it surprisingly enjoyable. January’s story also features one of the best canine protagonists in recent memory. Sinbad is a ‘bad’ dog that provides the protagonist with much-needed loyalty and readers with a character that’s easy to love.

Some book club members didn’t enjoy the structure of the novel, finding the ‘book-within-a-book’ conceit frustrating. This structure also left January without much to do until the second half of the novel — at which point the action ramps up. Some readers felt this pacing choice to be jarring. Others felt the chapters dedicated to parental backstories were strong enough to stand alone, perhaps as a novella.

Despite some misgivings about her debut novel, we all agreed that Harrow is an exciting emerging writer. We look forward to her next novel The Once and Future Witches, expected later in 2020.

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