THE TEN THOUSAND DOORS OF JANUARY, by Alix E. Harrow

It’s not often that I feel compelled to review a book, but then it’s not often I read a book like THE TEN THOUSAND DOORS OF JANUARY.

THE TEN THOUSAND DOORS OF JANUARY, by Alix E. Harrow, came out in 2019, but I only stumbled upon it recently. It will likely be my favorite book this year. It could also be one of my favorite books ever. It falls into one of my favorite genres of sf: portal fantasy. If you’re unfamiliar with the phrase, you’re almost definitely familiar with the type of story. In a portal fantasy, an ordinary person is transported from one world to another via magic, perhaps through a secret door, a piece of furniture (like, say, a wardrobe), or some other magical mechanism. Think the Narnia books, THE WIZARD OF OZ, PETER PAN…

As TEN THOUSAND DOORS opens, young January Scaller lives in a sprawling mansion with her guardian, a wealthy gentleman archaeologist. January is sort of an orphan, and spends her days largely by herself, exploring the mansion’s collection of mysterious artifacts. All that changes when January discovers a strange book that tells a story filled with secret doors, adventure, other worlds, long-lost lovers… As she reads on, she realizes her connection to the story is very personal. Adventure ensues.

I am a sucker for a book that features a book-in-a-book as a narrative device, and it’s expertly done here. I won’t talk about that aspect any further, so as not to spoil it, but it’s a lot of fun. Harrow’s writing is vivid and full of wit, and the story just completely reeled me in. January goes on a Hero’s Journey, as one would expect from this type of book, but it’s done in a way that feels organic. She doesn’t just level up at the end of each chapter. It’s earned, and certainly not easy.

Most of the main characters are BIPOC, and as the story is set in the early 20th century, Harrow doesn’t shy away from dealing with how, uh, challenging not being white in that era would be. It never feels heavy-handed or clunky, though. The characters’ non-whiteness doesn’t define who they are; it just makes them more richly drawn.

If I were to describe how reading TEN THOUSAND WORLDS made me feel, I would compare it to MR. PENUMBRA’S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE and THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF ADDIE LARUE. That’s not to say that the plot bears any resemblance to those books; it doesn’t, other than — and this is only now occurring to me — they too feature stories as a plot device. What I am trying to say is that when I finished each of them, I sat back, happy, knowing I’d just read one hell of a book.

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