The Ten Thousand Doors of January will (if there’s any justice in the world) soon be a YA classic. With lyrical prose and boundless imagination, Alix E. Harrow weaves a rich duel-narrative tale of family, belonging, and the power of stories.
In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January
Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure
The Ten Thousand Doors of January is the first book I’ve read this year that immediately felt like it will be an all-time favorite.
This is the 11th addition to my “best of 2019” Goodreads shelf, but the only one that I can already see having a place of honor on my shelf forever.
I’ll be putting a brand-new copy next to my heavily annotated arc soon, but this isn’t a book that should ever be pristine. This is the kind of book that belongs on a nightstand, not a bookshelf, dog-eared and underlined and thoroughly loved. If I’d found this book when I was thirteen, I’m confident that I would have reread it until the cover fell off. There would be a semi-destroyed copy in my room still, right next to my worn copies of Inkheart and The Chronicles of Narnia.
Which, of course, is right where this book wants to be.
Like Inkheart (one of my childhood favorites), The Ten Thousand Doors of January is the story of a bookish girl with a bookish father and an absent (presumed dead mother). Like Cornelia Funke’s Meggie, January Scaller discovers an affinity for travel between worlds that turns out to be a dangerous quality–and the real reason for her mother’s absence and father’s secrets. With the help of colorful characters from other worlds and a boy who adores her, January must also run from the bad guys while exploring her newfound gifts.
The comparison to The Chronicles of Narnia is just as obvious. The Thousand Doors is the portal fantasy of all portal fantasies, dancing around in the sandbox of doors to fantasy worlds.
But please don’t misunderstand me–
I’m not making these comparisons to frame The Ten Thousand Doors of January as cliched or derivative. Quite the opposite. This book isn’t a rehash of old portal fantasy tropes; it invokes those tropes so that this story can be in conversation with the existing body of children’s fantasy worlds.
In a Q & A with the Nerd Daily, Alix E. Harrow describes her inspiration for the book:
Like many weird rural kids who read too much, I loved portal fantasies growing up. But I didn’t love their endings–when the Pevensies tumble back through the wardrobe and Alice wakes up and the Darlings fly out of Neverland. You know: the garbage part of the books.
schoolI studied empire, race, and environment in British children’s literature and found that many of my beloved childhood fantasies were also colonial fantasies. Like, think about Narnia: a fantasy realm in desperate need of four white foreign kids to come rescue and then rule them, populated by talking animals instead of indigenous people.
So The Ten Thousand Doors is in one sense an effort to subvert the problems that plagued my childhood fantasies books. To turn them inside-out and
backwards, to make them about home-going rather than conquest.”
Reading that quote after finishing the book was deeply satisfying. I think that’s exactly what Harrow has done: return to the form of the portal fantasy with fresh eyes. Since Narnia and Neverland and Wonderland were introduced, the world has changed considerably, and hopefully, writers have changed too.
I can’t say I’m with Harrow on the “return” part of portal fantasies (I always thought that cool! smh) but her mention of the Narnia books really resonated with me. I adored those books when I was small, and rereading them when I was 13/14 was a strange experience. Once I had some context, it was impossible to read those books without confronting Lewis’ views about the structure of society, mostly in terms of race and gender. Reading them again in high school and then in college brought new layers of meaning, and I’m sure reading them again in a few years will yield fresh insight.
All that to say: Harrow set out to revisit the colonialist assumptions underpinning nineteenth/twentieth-century British children’s literature through a present-day, YA lens.
The result is powerful.
Harrow goes about this examination in a wonderfully Young Adult way. I mentioned being about 13 when I revisited Narnia with new questions, and I think many readers have similar experiences at that age. What is more YA than reckoning with the unnoticed evils lurking behind beloved childhood stories? That’s practically the definition of YA–confronting the stories we’ve been told by adults with our own critical thinking for the first time.
Harrow is doing some heavy historical and literary lifting in this book, but the effort never shows. She never resorts to cheap
The Ten Thousand Doors of January doesn’t seem interested in making the reader feel gross or ashamed. There are uncomfortable parts, to be sure, but always in service of eventual catharsis.
Mostly, this book wants to heal.
January explores her sometimes-painful family history in search of understanding. Likewise, as a white Western reader, I found myself taken to my culture’s own colonialist history in search of a more loving way to view the world. Harrow doesn’t want to throw out the old tropes, she wants to take them into her own hands. She wants to use them to tell new stories about family, about belonging. She wants to open those same doors to new worlds.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a love letter to unruly girls and the conflicted young women they become. It is a celebration of the power of words, their magical and mundane powers to transport and transform us. It is an argument for taking stories seriously as objects just as deserving of study and value as any artifact. And it is a whip-smart, thrilling adventure told in heartfelt, lyrical prose.
My favorite read of the year so far. Hard to imagine anything beating it.
Many thanks to Orbit/Hachette Book Group for providing me with an advance review copy of this title at BookCon. No money changed hands for this review and all opinions are my own.