The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

While I’m willing to allow that this might not be a perfect book, it is the perfect book for me.

(I am, however, super irritated by deckled edges, which my paperback does have.)

From the author of those Fractured Fables that I love, this previous (longer) novel is absolutely delightful. I’m reminded of that lovely line from The Princess Bride, about how the story has everything. “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…” That’s a thing I love in a story: the containing of everything, and that’s how I feel about this book, which (bonus) centers a love for storytelling and the power of storytelling to very literally change the world; and also tattoos.

When I was seven, I found a door. I suspect I should capitalize that word, so you understand I’m not talking about your garden- or common-variety door that leads reliably to a white-tiled kitchen or a bedroom closet.

When I was seven, I found a Door.

January Scaller is the narrator of her story, and she frequently addresses the reader directly like she does here, which is a narrative device I also like. It’s not the right choice for every story, but here it allows us to feel close to January, who is conscious about her choice to tell her story in her way. Also like The Princess Bride, actually, there is a book within a book. January finds (is gifted? mysteriously?) a book called The Ten Thousand Doors, and as she reads it, so does the reader, so that there are two narrative threads running side-by-side until they, naturally, meet and converge.

January is the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke in rural Vermont. She is seven in 1901, when he takes her on a business trip where she finds that first Door. Her father, Julian, works for Mr. Locke, but he is almost always traveling; January is devoted to him but rarely gets to spend time with him, and when they are together, he is distracted. Her past is an enigma, but she is aware that she is privileged to have Mr. Locke’s favor, especially because she is “odd-colored,” a sort of coppery-red, with irrepressible hair. She knows fairly young that she lives in a world where it is best to be white, and she is not that, but Mr. Locke says she is “a perfectly unique specimen,” and he is a collector of unique specimens. (If this makes you uncomfortable, good.) “Sometimes I feel like an item in Mr. Locke’s collection labeled January Scaller, 57 inches, bronze; purpose unknown.”

The Door that January finds takes her to another world. And the book she finds later tells her more: that Doors are real and not the imaginings of a lonely seven-year-old. That there are “other worlds than these” (to quote the Dark Tower series, and my references to other stories here should confirm the universality of this story-about-stories). January is eventually inspired, by the book she finds and by events in her own carefully controlled (by others) world, to take the reins of her own narrative. And then things get really wild.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is sprawling, in the best way: January winds up learning about many worlds, about language and languages, the power of storytelling, her own history, the nature of love and of trust, and so much more. She has the most outstanding, incorrigible, infinitely loyal dog ever. And there is a world in which words are powerful beyond our imaginings, “where curves and spirals of ink adorn sails and skin.”

I do not mean they have power in the sense that they might stir men’s hearts or tell stories or declare truths, for those are the powers words have in every world. I mean that words in that world can sometimes rise from their ink-and-cotton cradles and reshape the nature of reality. Sentences may alter the weather, and poems might tear down walls. Stories may change the world.

Now, not every written word holds such power–what chaos that would be!–but only certain words written by certain people who combine an innate talent with many years of careful study, and even then the results are not the sort of fairy-godmother-ish magic you might be imagining…

I am, personally, additionally charmed by the power of tattooed words in that other world. You get the idea: this lovely, dreamy, heartfelt story not only has everything, but has a few framing elements – storytelling, tattoos – that speak to me in particular. (I will say that books about the power of books might be taking an obvious advantage, since the readers of books tend to be people who like books. But I’m on board with this.)

In the nature of the finest quest narratives, January is surrounded by a motley crew – a grocer’s son, a woman from another world, that mad wonderful bad dog (whose name is Bad) – and together they will accomplish unlikely things.

Harrow is herself a gifted storyteller. This is a book to get lost in and to stay up all night for. I’m genuinely really sad it’s over; I’ve ordered everything Harrow has ever written. Strongly recommend.


Rating: 10 worlds.

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