A Good Fantasy Adventure
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 18 January 2021
A book within a book always adds intrigue and sates a personal delight that a treasured possession of bound pages can be the catalyst for a fantasy adventure. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a highly imaginative mystery that is cleverly structured around the concept of magical doors into other worlds, and a protagonist that pursues a journey of discovery.
“There are ten thousand stories about ten thousand Doors, and we know them as well as we know our names. They lead to Faerie, Valhalla, Atlantis, and Lemuria, Heaven and Hell, to all the directions a compass would never take you, to elsewhere.”
Passageways to other worlds is a popular trope in fantasy stories and I appreciated that Alix Harrow paid homage to many fantasy tales by explicitly referencing those like Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, Jungle Book and Oz. The Doors are not only portals for travellers but often leak items such as magic mirrors, lamps and coins – all very familiar. These references are dropped with perfect placement and do not detract from the focus or momentum of the story but enthuse nerds like me spotting the links.
Negotiating the difficulties of life is often a challenge, but for a seventeen-year-old girl, January Scaller, that means her unrelenting search for the truth of who she is, finding her family and understanding the power and opportunity of using magical Doors to other worlds. January is red-skinned and lives under the guardianship of the wealthy Mr William Cornelius Locke. Her father is employed by Locke, in the New England Archaeological Society, and he travels the world seeking valuable treasures and unusual artefacts to add to Mr Locke’s collection. With a father January rarely sees, her closest friendships are with her dog Sinbad (Bad for short), Jane her Nannie/companion and her longtime childhood friend, Samuel.
Locke is a character formed with a cloak of suspicion, possibly hiding an evil intent, or the generous guardian that January somehow feels a connection with, and yet again perhaps it’s a tantalising tension between the two. Alix Harrow treads that fine balance with Locke to keep us guessing, unsure and apprehensive, mistrustful yet hoping January has a safe harbour. When January finds a book titled The Ten Thousand Doors written by Yule Ian Scholar, and includes the story of Adelaide Lee, it feels like a personal message and a guide to other worlds. When January’s father is reported dead, January starts her journey with her book in one hand and her friends, Jane, Samuel, and Bad by her side, to unravel the mysteries beyond the many Doors.
There is a strong theme of escaping, either a limiting compliant life, danger, powerful forces seeking to do harm, or worlds that are not home. References are often made to a labyrinth and metaphorically escaping the Minotaur.
“They are the red threads that we may follow out of the labyrinth. It is my hope that this story is your thread, and at the end of it you find a door.”
A book can open our minds and elicit actions, which is truly the case in this story and gradually the link between the two narrative threads becomes apparent. Of major concern is a sinister and deadly force on their heels that is intent on closing Doors permanently. This is a move to maintain power, in and between worlds, as all opportunities cause change, and some will kill for change to be thwarted, and the status quo to remain.
This is a great story on many levels and provides wonderful depth in raising real contemporary issues around sexism, racism, slavery, political power, and domination. The area I had some difficultly with, is January herself and the frustratingly stupid decisions she made and the reasoning she played out in her head. The background to other characters could have been developed further and I’m particularly thinking about Jane as she was an engrossing character with a lot more contribution to be made. Various relationships drifted off into thin air at the end and I felt cheated from the fullness of the story.
I would recommend reading this book, especially for fantasy lovers and those that enjoy deeper meaning and links with other works of literature.