The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
Genre: Historical Fantasy
I love historical fantasy. Particularly Regency/Victorian/Edwardian era fantasy. Give me magic and wizards and worlds colliding with our own and you don’t need to ask me twice to read. When I first stumbled upon Alix E. Harrow’s AMA on Reddit, I was so excited that I immediately ordered her book. The cover is gorgeous, the title intriguing, and historians are often fantastic novelists because the two mediums are so intertwined.
My first disappointment came when I realized that the main character’s name was January–that the title was not in fact about doors that only spawned in January. This seems kind of obvious in retrospect, but I was excited to see what the author meant by doors of January. Instead, the character January–a stereotypical YA fluff name–lives in a mansion with her stuffy foster father while her real father traverses the world in search of treasure. She is a “good girl,” always doing what she is told, until she finds a doorway to another world, and then a mysterious book called the Ten Thousand Doors.
As it turns out, Harrow chose to focus on the wrong heroine. January comes across as helpless, emotional, annoying, and ultimately, boring. Anytime she gets a burst of courage, it is coupled with anger and irrational choices. Her foster father offers her a seat in an illusive society that kind of came out of nowhere. January declines in a stunning fit of rage, insulting everyone, and placing a target on her back. While there is momentary catharsis in her actions, I was mostly flabbergasted at her choice. Why not see what this society is all about? Why not act as if she were on the same side as her foster father and his friends? Find out what is actually going on so she can help her father? Nope. Just rage fit. Like the spoiled teenager the book is trying to convince us she’s not.
More than half the novel is focused on the book January discovers, which tells the tale of a rambunctious girl named Adelaide Lee who finds a door and meets a boy from another world for one afternoon, then spends the next 12 years obsessively searching for him. The book is clearly written by the boy (Yule Ian) who is obviously January’s mostly absent father (seriously, this should be a spoiler to no one). So Ade and Yule Ian have adventures worthy of legend, visiting worlds untold in search of each other.
Yet, with thousands and thousands of worlds at her fingertips, Harrow doesn’t spend time developing any of them. We get a vague idea of the world Yule Ian is from, but not much more than that. She starts to delve into the idea that so many doors from other worlds would influence our own, but doesn’t flesh it out. Instead, she tries to make us care about Ade and Yule’s instalove, and poor January’s fate.
One other aspect of the book that bothered me was that it did not do a good job of portraying the difficulty women, particularly women of color, would have faced during this time period. It seems odd to me that January and Jane roam mostly unmolested. That Ade is able to live on her own and fund her expeditions for so many years. The author certainly made an attempt to show discrimination, but it came off as half-hearted.
One thing I will say is that Harrow’s prose is lyrical and haunting. Dream-like, fairytale prose in the vein of Laini Taylor is very in right now. While I usually love this kind of prose, characterization often suffers. Taylor’s characters, at least, are more well rounded, less whiny, more badass. The Night Circus uses it’s tone as a character. Sadly, I just didn’t think The Ten-Thousand Doors of January quite pulled it off.
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