Pretty yet disappointing: Alix E. Harrow – The Ten Thousand Doors of January

There was one book in 2019 that I had been looking forward to more than any others. I adored Alix E. Harrow’s Hugo-winning short story (“A Witch’s Guide to Escape”, her blog, her writing in general, and the synopsis of her first novel sounded so utterly perfect that I had it pre-ordered as soon as it was listed on Amazon. Then the rave reviews came in and I was sure I was in for a treat. But – and this is my theme of 2019, apparently – hypes around certain books are not to be trusted. This was by no means a bad book! But it didn’t deliver what was promised and that was enough to leave me disappointed yet again.

THE TEN THOUSAND DOORS OF JANUARY
by Alix E. Harrow

Published by: Redhook, 2019
Hardcover: 384 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

First line: When I was seven, I found a door.

In the early 1900s, a young woman embarks on a fantastical journey of self-discovery after finding a mysterious book in this captivating and lyrical debut.
In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.
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 and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.
Lush and richly imagined, a tale of impossible journeys, unforgettable love, and the enduring power of stories awaits in Alix E. Harrow’s spellbinding debut–step inside and discover its magic.

January Scaller lives in a big old house with Mr. Locke, the man who has taken her in as a ward and given her father a job hunting for archeological artifacts. As a girl who’s not white (although nobody is sure just what color her skin is and with which specific prejudices people should meet her) in the early 20th century, January is constantly reminded how lucky she is to have such a benefactor. January gets an education, has a myriad of odd things to discover in Locke’s house, and yet never feels quite right.

We meet January as a meek but curious (in the sense of interested) girl who is bound by the laws of her time and her benefactor. Be quiet, stay in the background, be polite, don’t show too much emotion, don’t try to grow above your station… those are the rules January has to live by and she knows they suck just the way I knew it when I started reading this book. So it’s easy to feel sympathy for our protagonist but despite that sympathy, I had a hard time truly caring about January. She was like a portrait to me. Distant, a specimen, a sketchy character study rather than a person who felt real. Early on in this book, we are told (sometimes shown, but on many occasions just told, in exceedingly pretty words) that January is bookish, yearns to belong somewhere, kind of misses and doesn’t miss her absent father, and kind of loves but maybe doesn’t really love Locke, who has been more father to her than her actual one.

But not totally feeling the protagonist is not a reason to give up on this book. The language – oh, the language – was so lovely, I thought it might keep me reading all by itself. Who cares about plot or character when there are such words, strung together to paint pictures in my mind. It turns out, I did care eventually. The writing style, though without a doubt beautiful and lyrical, also gave me a sort of… studied impression. I don’t know how to explain it better (I wish I had Harrow’s talent for words right now!), but I never had the impression that those gorgeous descriptions flowed organically, but rather that they were researched and thought about and put there precisely at the right point with a scalpel. That may not change anything about how beautiful the prose is as such, but it left a sort of bitter aftertaste for me.

As for the other characters, most of them felt as distant to me as January. We are told many things about the small cast, but for my taste, we didn’t see enough of their actions to truly get to know them. Even Bad, January’s dog, didn’t excite me – and I’m usually a sucker for animals in stories. Sure, I wanted the good guys to win and the bad guys to fail, but I wasn’t really in it. Speaking of the bad guys. If the revelations at the end of the book were supposed to be unexpected plot twists, they failed miserably. It was very obvious from a very early point that there is something wrong with certain people and it didn’t even take that much imagination to figure out most of the truth, minor details excluded.

Which leads me to the plot as such. It is slow! It takes a long, long time to truly get started because the book is so focused on producing pretty words to describe things that almost nothing happens for the first half of the book. Well, almost nothing. My favorite part of this story – and the part that should have been a whole entire book, if I had anything to say about it – was the book within a book. January finds a book called “The Ten Thousand Doors” one day and starts reading it. We get to read that book too, in alternating chapters (one chapter January story, one chapter book within a book), and while it also took me a chapter to warm to that story, I ended up really loving it. I cared about the characters in that story, I wanted to learn more about them and more about the world they come from. So, the actually fictional “Ten Thousand Doors” was a fantastic book for me, but sadly way too short, as it’s only part of the real world Ten Thousand Doors of January.

That title and the synopsis on the back of the book also imply things that are simply not delivered. Of course I didn’t expect to actually discover ten thousand doors into other worlds with our protagonist, but I was hoping for at least a few of them. We only really get to see one in any detail, and the world building for that had its own kind of magic that reminded me of Strange the Dreamer. It was everything I’d hoped for. Unfortunately, we spend most of our time in the real world, so this is more historical novel than fantasy (again, not a bad thing, but marketing led me to believe differently and I feel a little cheated). There simply wasn’t enough magic for my taste, at least during the first two thirds of the book.

Now, the last third finally got going. Every gripe I’ve mentioned above sort of goes away toward the end. January finally acts instead of just reacting to her surroundings, the plot turns into a thrilling ride with dangerous situations, plenty of magic and mythology, and I finally got the message of this story. It’s about love, spanning decades and worlds, about family and belonging, about finding out who you are and carving out your own place in the world. I really loved the ending of this book, but I can’t say it made up for the hours I spent reading just so I could get it done. I was bored for long stretches of this book and even the pretty writing didn’t help me get over my disappointment of finding something very different from what I had expected.

I know I’m pretty alone with that opinion and, believe me, I wish I was one of the many voices who raved about this book and gave it the highest ratings. I love Alix E. Harrow’s writing in general and I will definitely check out whatever she does next. But this book right here ended up being only okay for me.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

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