Book Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January

by mharinimmo

Fantastical adventure that celebrates the art of storytelling, complete with shady secret society, magical doorways and lovable animal sidekick. Overall: 4/5 stars.

book cover

‘As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, January Scaller feels little different from the artefacts that decorate his sprawling mansion: carefully maintained, largely ignored and utterly out of place. But when she finds a strange book – one that tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger – for the first time, January realises she can escape her story and sneak into someone else’s…

Author: Alix E. Harrow

Review – which has some spoilers

The first thing to note about The Ten Thousand Doors of January is that it’s a very self-aware sort of book. Like Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, the narrator is quick to point out the fact they are telling you a story.

In the opening chapters, our narrator January repeatedly draws attention to the construction of the story she is telling. She even critiques her own storytelling style, stating ‘I ought to introduce Mr. Locke properly; he’d hate to wander into the story in such a causal, slant-wise way. Allow me to present…’ (p.4). Locke becomes a noticeable, movable part of the narrative – you can’t forget, when someone is introduced in such a manner, that they are a constructed character designed to have some sort of impact on the story.

All sounding a bit meta? The book sets you up in the opening chapters to be very-aware of its self-awareness. We all know there’s a story going on: the reader knows, January knows, the book knows. This continues as we move between January’s narrative POV and the narrator of the book she begins to read in chapter two (which is later revealed to be the scholarly journal/autobiography/apology of her often-absent, world-travelling father, Jule Ian – or Julian, if you’re from this world). This Russian-doll style story within a story is pretty cool and throughout the book we encounter instances of characters reading and writing in ways that alter the narrative and shape their constructed reality.

In fact, that’s the part of this book I enjoyed the most: the way it elevates the act of storytelling and makes it central to the worlds it depicts, even going so far as to construct a fantastical world called Written where words and stories have physical, tangible effects on physical reality. Stories in this book become life-altering and world-forming things.

Take, for example, the function of the magical Doors. They are, it’s repeatedly mentioned, agents of change. Things and people move between them, leaving a trail of myths and stories in their wake:

‘If we address stories as archaeological sites, and dust through their layers with meticulous care, we find at some level there is always a doorway. A dividing point between here and there, us and them, mundane and magical. It is at moments when the doors open, when things flow between worlds, that stories happen.’

It’s a fantastical sort of immigration, and it similarly changes both the traveller and the culture (or, in this case, world) that is moved to. And it’s this wonderful ability of Doors to create and facilitate stories and migration that creates the central conflict of the text, the existence of a powerful secret society determined to destroy all the Doorways to Earth and stem the flow of change. For context, this book is set in early 20th-century America; the society is full of wealthy white dudes with pretty racist agendas. It’s a frighteningly relevant commentary about social power hierarchies and how those with power often dislike the idea of change, viewing any sort of social shift as a threat to their position.

So, I think I liked this book so much because you go into thinking you’re getting a magical adventure story – and it delivers on that promise – but you also get some culturally relevant social commentary and a passionate meta-description about the act of storytelling. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is an excellent book and, frankly, it was exactly the right sort of fantastical whimsy I needed right now.

If you liked this, try…

  • The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
  • Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne-Jones (which also has an amazing adaptation courtesy of Studio Ghibli)
  • Stardust by Neil Gaiman
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (for more magical doorways)

Anyone else read this one? Let me know what you thought!

Mhari

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