The Ten Thousand Doors of January Is a Novel That Will Change the Way You Look at Stories

Rarely there comes along a book that makes me reconsider my relationship with stories. The Ten Thousand Doors of January, the debut novel of recent Hugo Award-winner Alix E. Harrow, is one of them.

It tells of January Scaller, a young woman growing up at the turn of the 20th century who is sucked into an adventure that takes her between worlds and reveals that stories too fantastical to be true actually are. January’s father is an employee of the fabulously wealthy Mr. Locke. He travels the world searching for lost treasures and valuable artifacts to add to his employer’s immense collection. While her father’s away, January staves off the boredom of the high society life she’s been adopted into by losing herself in pulp adventure novels. One day, she discovers a mysterious book called The Ten Thousand Doors, and inside its pages she mets the vivacious Miss Adelaide Lee Larson—a remarkable woman who lived a few decades earlier, and left an account of her years spent exploring, and her discovery that some doors don’t lead to where you’d expect.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a story about doors—where they lead, where they don’t, and how to open them. It’s also a story about stories—how they’re entwined with our lives, how we’re motivated by them and shaped by them, and how the pursuit of our own stories shapes the choices available to us. It’s about how love can transcend the traditional barriers of class, race, religion, and even worlds. It’s about hope and escapism, perseverance and personal belief.

In the reading, the novel echoes many revered works of fantasy. Like Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, it’s a love letter to books. It examines how seemingly disparate lives can be profoundly connected in ways that recall Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (though Harrow’s star-crossed lovers unite across universes instead of time). As Adelaide stepped through a strange doorway and discovered the City of Nin and its vast archipelago world, I thought of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea adventures. For a story about stories, it feels perfect that so many of The Ten Thousand Doors of January‘s foundational elements are evocative of some of my very favorite novels.

That’s not to say that Harrow’s novel is derivative; though it certainly exists within the fabric of portal fantasy conventions, it also stands apart. The prose is distinctive and evocative, sweeping you up gently and pulling you through the narrative with a voice that’s gentle yet insistent. It’s easy to lose yourself in January and Adelaide’s nesting stories, even as they both discover themselves within them. Where January’s tale is a breathless first-person account, Adelaide’s half of things is told through scholarly excerpts from The Ten Thousand Doors that exude an air of mystery and ancient truth. Harrow’s ability to jump back and forth between the two main narratives without derailing either is impressive.

In January’s present day story and the historical account of Adelaide’s adventures are rich in themes of freedom and escape. Both of the young women yearn to free themselves from the strictures of society though their living circumstances are vastly different: Adelaide is yearns to escape her family farm and see more of the world. January is a mixed-race young woman living on the outskirts of a high society dominated by white male interests; she seeks to find her own place in the world, to be an explorer like her father, but is not allowed to do so due to her gender. It’s thrilling to stand alongside both of these women as they find the means to break these shackles.

Freedom has different definitions depending on who you ask, and this is a novel that explores exactly what that means: Harrow delicately examines questions of race and privilege, using the book’s portal fantasy elements to further illustrate how circumstance can bind people to fates and futures they do not want.

It is a perfectly imperfect book. You won’t notice if the ending comes along a little quickly, because by that point you’ll be inextricably, heartbreakingly absorbed in January and Adelaide’s double helix stories, which comes together in a greatly satisfying manner, even if you are one of those readers perceptive enough to see the ways their pieces fit together before the characters do. Characters are constantly setting off on deadly voyages in this novel, and there’s an eagerness to their journeys that left me feeling invigorated; I was reminded of my earliest days as a reader, when I first learned how I could tumbled through the cover of a book and into a new works. (Books being their own peculiar sort of doorway.)

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is portal fantasy at its best. It creates startling, fantastical worlds and dreams up thrilling adventures, yes, but also examines why we so often dream of finding a door to a new place. Before I read it, I thought I knew what a door was. I thought I knew what a story was. Now, I’ll never look at either in quite the same way.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a 2019 Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers selection. It’s available now. Read our interview with the author.

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