I need to find the Door to a world where I can give this book more than 5 stars.
Reviewed in the United States on 11 August 2019
I confess to being an escape reader most of the time. I need to read plots and characters in words made up by somebody else to drown out my own thoughts, which are usually grim these past few years. Sometimes my escape read has a really great plot or appealing characters; sometimes it's well written. I rarely find a book that has a superior plot and also exceptional, superior writing. I can think of only three such that I've read in this past year: Diane Setterfield's ONCE UPON A RIVER, Lyndsay Faye's THE PARAGON HOTEL, and Natt och Dag's THE WOLF AND THE WATCHMAN.
And now we have this debut novel by Alix Harrow. It is everything I look for in fiction. Beautiful writing; clever, unique plot; interesting characters; a world I can lose myself in. You can read this on many levels. If all you want is a thumping good fantasy/adventure, it's here for you. If you want a coming-of-age tale, it's here. If you want a love story, there's some of that also. And if you want an allegorical commentary on society and its biases, injustices and strictures, look no further.
This is January Scaller's story and it begins in 1901 in Vermont when she is seven. January, the daughter of a black father, Julian Scaller, and a white mother whose name and existence are unknown to her and us at the beginning, is the ward of wealthy collector Cornelius Locke, her father's employer. Julian is sent off around the world to find treasures and valuable artifacts for Mr. Locke, while January lives a lonely life, rather like Locke's curious pet, possession, or curiosity as a mixed-race girl.
She is pampered, as a rich man's ward, but her life is contained and confined. When she discovers her first magic Door at the age of seven, she enters the threshold of a new world for a brief moment, until she hears Locke calling to her and she passes out of that world again, but not before picking up a silver coin she will keep hidden.
This is not the kind of behavior Locke prescribes and January is required to behave appropriately until, at the age of 17, she discovers a leather-bound journal, THE TEN THOUSAND DOORS. There's a whole world, or perhaps one should say "worlds", out there just waiting to be discovered and explored if one can only find the Door to enter them. "Because there are ten thousand stories about ten thousand doors and we know them as well as our names. They lead to Faerie, to Valhalla, Atlantis and Lemuria, Heaven and Hell, to all the directions a compass could never take you, to 'elsewhere'".
And "certain words written by certain people" hold power. This "word magic" can open doors, to effect change, to free and open minds. Is January one of those "certain people"? Perhaps it "isn't healthy for young girls to grow up with their heads full of doors and other worlds."
So January breaks away from her confines and sets out on her quest. To find her father. To learn about her mother. To know things. To be free. To find a place to belong. And we readers go along for the ride.
As I said earlier, you can choose to read this as a rollicking fantasy/adventure, with certain people searching for Doors and new worlds and other more powerful people looking to stop them and close all those Doors, because Doors "overturn order" and "instigate all sorts of trouble and disruptions."
Or you can read this as a coming-of-age story about a girl who needs to find out more about her father and mother in order to understand herself.
Then there's the fantasy's allegorical level with social commentary about racism and classism, about the rich and powerful oppressing the less powerful, about the need for freedom and change, and about the power of the written word in all of this.
But, most of all for me, there was the simple delight of reading an excellently written book. A book I savored and read slowly, quite the change from my usual race to a book's finish line denouement.
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