Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

My third Oyeyemi. She is brilliant and fascinating; her books have a momentum of their own. I am often left with the sense that she is smarter than me, that more is happening here than I was able to grasp. Gingerbread was the novel of hers that I most enjoyed, The Icarus Girl was the most confusing, and this one fits in the middle of the list by both measures.

I am going to keep this summary pretty brief, because there are some good-sized spoilers in the novel. We meet our protagonist, Boy Novak, when she is in her late teens. She has white-blond hair, a face somewhere between ‘harsh’ and ‘fine-boned,’ and a fascination with mirrors. She speaks to other versions of herself in them. She may be lonely. She lives in Manhattan with her father, a rat catcher and seriously abusive, until she runs away at age 20. She takes the last bus of the night to the end of the line, arriving in Flax Hill, Massachusetts in 1953 with few possessions, but she is able to start fresh, making friends, dating, working odd jobs, eventually marrying a man with a craft, a family, and a dear daughter named Snow. Part One is told in Boy’s first-person voice, but Parts Two and Three will shift perspective.

I can go no further with summary. The setting remains chiefly in Flax Hill, with exposition traveling to Boston, Mississippi, and back to New York. Oyeyemi’s characters are completely fascinating; among the secondary characters I love most are Mia, a driven journalist and free-thinker, and Mrs. Fletcher, who runs a bookshop and acts as a bit of a community mentor. Boy, Snow, Bird is concerned with race and gender identity, the true nature of love, family dynamics, damage and forgiveness, sisterhood, motherhood, and national and societal patterns around race and racism. It is billed as a bit of a riff on the Snow White tale, but is not exactly a retelling. There is the girl Snow; there is a stepmother who is (at one point) accused of evil; there is something strange going on with mirrors, and not only for Boy. There is definitely some commentary on vanity, beauty, and the shaping of family by these means. But it strays quite far from the fairy tale. Actually, this would be an awfully interesting one to study alongside stricter retellings. I feel unable to say more.

There are lots of images and concepts that I’m going to keep revisiting. I’m not sure I got it all: not always a comfortable feeling, but certainly a stimulating one. No question, I’m going to continue my study of Oyeyemi. Stay tuned. I do recommend this one, and feel free to come back and explain it to me.


Rating: 7 records.

Shades in Shadow: An Inheritance Triptych by N.K. Jemisin

He does not pay attention to most of what he detects via the dark that is his ears and skin and teeth and guts. Most of it is routine, and supremely boring. Stars–sparkle flare sparkle. Planets–spin shatter spin. Life–chatter chitter chatter. The unutterable tedium of a breathing, beating universe.

This trio of short stories returns us to the world of Jemisin‘s Inheritance Trilogy (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, The Kingdom of Gods, as well as the novella The Awakened Kingdom). Each story fits into the timeline already established by the larger trilogy, with mostly characters we already know.

“The Wild Boy” featured Nahadoth in the early phase of his imprisonment – the god of darkness kept in a pit in a dungeon – and meeting a young mortal with a grudge against the Arameri. This opening story was perhaps the weakest; the (digital) pages turned easily enough, but I didn’t feel that anything new was revealed about Naha or the world he inhabits. It was just a little extra time spent with him, which I don’t begrudge but didn’t advance anything. “The God Without a Name” was of more interest: Nahadoth’s human double for the spell of his imprisonment coming slowly to terms with his post-Naha identity, the emptiness and lack of purpose, his troubled relationships, and eventually his improvement of these circumstances. Finally, I think “The Third Why” was the best of this triptych, neatly linked again to the second story, so that they connect like links in a chain – not only joined by the Inheritance universe but by characters one to another, from Naha to the nameless god to Glee in this third story. “The Third Why” sees Glee leave her mother’s home to search for her father, whose identity is a spoiler if you haven’t read the trilogy… but if you haven’t read the trilogy, frankly, you will have limited interest in this trio of shorts. So, spoiler coming: Glee goes to find Itempas and travel “with” him (they cleverly circumvent the rule that he must travel alone by pretending it’s all coincidence – this only works, of course, if the other gods willfully look the other way). The development of these two characters and their relationship makes this story the strongest in my view.

On the whole, I think Jemisin’s novels are quite a bit stronger than these shorts. (And recall I really did love that novella mentioned above.) The short story format is truly a different art form than the full-length novel, to be fair. And what Jemisin undertakes here is something particular: a further development of a preexisting fictional world. The audience is necessarily readers already familiar with that world. As a member of that audience, I was pleased – increasingly so with each story, which represents a good choice, I think (better to end on a strong note). I would not recommend readers enter the Inheritance universe here, but those who miss our weird pantheon of gods should be satisfied with the small investment in this e-book only edition (which translates to just 64 pages). I’m perfectly happy to have spent my time this way. I am still more excited to get back to Jemisin’s big, fat, juicy novels.


Rating: 6.5 groundnuts.

The Awakened Kingdom by N.K. Jemisin

The Awakened Kingdom is another Kindle-only novella, following the Inheritance trilogy (of which The Kingdom of Gods was the third book). Thanks Pops for clueing me in!

As is more or less usual, this review contains spoilers for previous books (all three novels in the trilogy) but none for The Awakened Kingdom itself.

This was great fun and went by quickly, and I am quite entranced by the narrator’s voice (I seem to like each better than the last). It takes a little while to figure out who is speaking to us, because they leap right in with great enthusiasm, shouting in all-caps and with exclamation marks: this is a brand-new, infant godling, who is still learning about the world and their own powers and (not least) how to tell a story.

I am born! Hello!

Many things happen.

The end!

(Then our child-god gets some lessons in storytelling from Papa Tempa, or Itempas, who you may remember is the god among other things of order. Later the narrator will also indulge in some Mama Yeine-style storytelling, with the disjointed chronology that characterized the first book in this series. It’s quite cute like that.) We eventually learn that the speaker is more or less female (using ‘she’ pronouns), and 40 days old when we meet her; she does not have a name until she gives herself one, which I’ll use here in the interest of clarity and because it gives nothing huge away. Our narrator is Shill. She was conceived as a replacement for Sieh, the Eldest godling and Trickster; she is frustrated early in her life, though, because she’s terrible at being Sieh. So begins the familiar challenge of becoming, instead, herself.

Shill finds herself attracted to the mortal realm, and travels to one continent in particular where she’ll meet her sibling-god Ia, a captivating young mortal man named Eino, his powerful grandmother Fahno, and the two women who both hope to marry him. In Eino’s society, women hold all the power. They fight and protect, support their families and rule politically. It is men’s job to have beautiful hair and clothing and smell nice – to be decorative, to raise children, and to serve their wives. “Women risk their lives enough to bear children and provide for them by tool or by blade; the least men can do is handle things after that.” This reversal is quite a revelation for me: it’s refreshing in some ways, shocking in others (the patriarchy is so ingrained that it’s hard to grasp), and makes its point so well that it’s almost nauseating – that is, it’s easy to see how unjust men’s degradation is in this fictional world, so what the hell is wrong with this real one, y’all? All of this is fascinating, and it takes Shill – naïve though she is – about a millisecond to see the problem. What she’ll do about it – and what Eino will do, because despite being just a boy he is quite impressive – will change everything.

Shill’s narrative voice does mature some as she does – the exclamation marks fall away and the feelings get a little less toddler-temper-tantrum. But she retains a disarming, downright charming, innocent regard for things being right and just. “ALL EXISTENCE WAS WRONG AND TERRIBLE AND IT SHOULD BE BETTER!” Tell them, Shill! The two high points for this novella, for me, are that voice, and the eye-opening problem of misandry. The Awakened Kingdom is a delight: entertaining, fast-paced, deeply charming, and also thought-provoking. I wish I could read it again for the first time, immediately.

And so, good news: there is more Inheritance! I’ve just loaded up Shades in Shadow, a triptych of short stories from the same world. Hooray and keep writing, Jemisin.


Rating: 9 serry-flowers.

City of Bones by Martha Wells

I went looking for more from the back catalog of the author of the Murderbot Diaries, and here we are with the rather hard-to-find City of Bones. It went by quickly at nearly 400 pages; I found it absorbing.

Wells creates a fictional fantasy world, post-apocalypse, and the apocalypse here involves godlike creatures, magical Mages, and something a bit climate-change-analogous, with fires and blistering heat and arid destruction. A new race of not-quite-humans was created in this process who can tolerate these extreme conditions better than regular humans (who have also survived); humans, naturally, treat these krismen as inferior and discriminate against them. (Kris also have pouches that are involved somehow with sex and reproduction, a thread that doesn’t get quite adequately explored; I wonder if Wells had a sequel in mind?) Our action here is set in a city with a clear caste system. It is physically arranged in eight tiers, and those on top are the elite, while the lower tiers are populated by the dirty and the poor. Water is at a great premium. There are classes of intimidating Patricians and enforcers including Trade Inspectors (who can arrest and abuse anyone who disrupts capitalism), Warders (practitioners of magic who serve the Elector or ruler), and the privileged scholars of the Academia.

Our protagonist is a kris named Khat, who lives in the city and trades in Ancient relics along with his partner Sagai (not kris), living communally with Sagai and Sagai’s wife and children and other non-relatives on the Sixth Tier. Solitary if not antisocial, Khat left his kris community some years ago for reasons we won’t understand for much of the book. He and Sagai are qualified to be fine scholars but not accepted as such, Khat because he is considered subhuman and Sagai because he is of the wrong race. The novel opens with their exposure to a mysterious stranger who turns out to be both a Warder (scary) and female (quite rare for Warders): Elen. She entangles them in profound intrigues involving relics and magic and the most powerful weirdos in the realm. Eventually it will fall on this small band – Khat, Sagai, Elen, and a surprisingly friendly scholar they meet along the way – to save the world.

Whew.

City of Bones has significant world-building on its side. I truly liked all of our main characters and rooted for them. The subtle and not-so-subtle misogyny in this world felt both realistic and familiar, and well handled in terms of nuance. As I said, the plot was engaging enough to get lost in. Wells is showing her talents here… but this is no Murderbot, and I’m not surprised that that later series is what she’s won her more mainstream accolades for. Where Murderbot is snappy and pithy and fast-paced, City of Bones wanders more, sometimes into the inscrutable. Not unusually for me with fantasy/sci-fi, I had to let some of the details wash over me without bothering too much about them. And, as with the krismen’s pouch, I felt there was some background information offered that never got fully used. Now, this could be the author fully fleshing out her world, making sure it had three dimensions even where the reader wasn’t necessarily looking. But it also felt (like I said) like maybe there was going to be more to this world – like a series – than ended up happening.

Solid, good read.


Rating: 7 tokens.

“Autobiography of a Traitor and a Half-Savage” by Alix E. Harrow

Thanks to Liz for making me aware of this ebook-only short story by one of my new favorites, who has not written nearly enough books yet.

Our narrator, Oona, was “born in 1892 on the banks of the Mississippi, in that muddied, mongrel part of the world where East and West are separated only by the coalsmoke-scummed river.” Her mother was an Amerind, of the West; her father an Easterner, “one of those scruffy, perennially drunk men who float down the river like driftwood.” Oona never knew him. She is therefore a mixed child, “half of one thing and half the other,” born to be a mapmaker. “In our language, the word for mapmaker is also the word for traitor.”

Oona is indeed a mapmaker as a young adult when we meet her. Mapmakers in this world do not make maps, but rather hold the world in place, literally, while it bucks and reshapes itself to defy easy travel; she works for the Easterners who hope to conquer the shifting, untamed West for their own profit. She is therefore a traitor to her Western roots. But mapmaking was the only source of reasonable income available to a young orphaned woman with a dependent: her younger brother Ira is ill, and her employers hold him hostage, his care and medication in exchange for her continued service. Until Oona must lead her hated boss to a bone tree – what Easterners would call a graveyard, and Oona’s people might call “the trees that take up the dead to sing for seven generations.” And things change again.

My greatest complaint with this short story is that it is short. Oona is compelling, caught in a moral quandary, bound by her love for her brother whose love for her will have hard consequences… and caught between East and West, two halves of herself. This world is both recognizable (themes of traditional lifestyles versus colonialism; exploitation, self-determination and magic) and foreign (magic). Harrow uses footnotes in this story, an opportunity for a little extra narrative musing, and the tricky use of outside sources that imply authority in a work of (yes) fiction (her sources too are fictional). The whole thing is both fun and moving. I’m just sorry it’s over. Well worth the pennies it cost me. Write more, Alix!


Rating: 8 malevolent stars.

The Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin

Mortal children are very wise, though it takes a careful listener or a god to understand this.

Following The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Jemisin’s debut) and The Broken Kingdoms, The Kingdom of Gods closes out the Inheritance trilogy. It is getting hard to parse my favorites out of her body of work, but this one ranks high. (Spoilers for books one and two follow; for this book, however, this review is spoiler-free.)

Book one dealt with Yeine’s relationship with Nahadoth, and her transformation to one of the Three. Yeine and Nahadoth, by the end of that book, had regained power, sending Itempas into exile and a strange, repeating mortality – he can die but always comes right back. In book two, we saw a mortal ‘demon’ (one parent is mortal and the other a god or godling) form a relationship with the exiled Itempas. In book three – as its title promises – we continue to develop the relationships between the Three and between gods, godlings and mortals. Jemisin continues to develop the rules of this wide, wild world – the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the mortal and gods’ realms, the heavens and hells, and the possibilities of all these worlds. It’s quite expansive, so that the surprises keep coming, in ways I really appreciate. Jemisin is not cutting corners, changing the rules to suit her; but she does let the worlds and the rules keep expanding and changing.

Here, the central character is for the first time not a mortal (Yeine, Oree) but a godling: Sieh, the Eldest Child, the first godling, and although he is the eldest, also the god of childhood, youth, playfulness, impulsiveness; he most commonly manifests as a child or as a cat. (He was also the first god or godling that Yeine met, so we have known him longest.) I’m not sure if it’s just that this is the book I read last, but I might love Sieh’s voice best of all. I don’t want to say too much here, but – the world is changing, for mortals and gods and godlings, for the Three, for Sieh, in ways that are both stimulating and scary. The stakes are the highest they’ve ever been. I did not want this book to end.

And, oh! More wonderful news came in the ‘extras’ at the back of my paperback edition: usually there is a teaser excerpt here from another Jemisin series, but this was a short story, “Not the End,” which turns out to be an epilogue of sorts to this very series – I could not have been more overjoyed with that. (The novel itself has a “Coda” but more is even better! Ha.) I would love to think that this is indeed “not the end” of the Inheritance trilogy, but I fear that it’s up to my imagination from here.

I will continue to read all the Jemisin. She’s one of my favorites.


Rating: 9 surprises.

The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Following The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in the Inheritance Trilogy comes The Broken Kingdoms. (I’ve already begun on book three, The Kingdom of Gods.)

Spoilers from book one – not this book – follow.

So, we are continuing in that world in which Yeine becomes a god – or, lives her partner-soul’s god-life. In this installment, we switch protagonists, but continue with a first-person narrator who is still just learning about the world in which she lives and what role she plays in it. Here, the narrator is Oree, who like Yeine is an immigrant from the outer kingdoms to the center – but unlike Yeine, who arrived with some privilege, Oree lives not in Sky proper but in Shadow, the surrounding city where the great tree blocks most of the sunlight. Oree is a working artist who sells her wares in the street to pilgrims, other travelers from outer kingdoms come to pay their respects. (In the new world, it is uneasily permitted to worship not only Bright Itempas but other freed gods and godlings.) Oree is also blind, or nearly blind: she can see magic. Magical objects and places and people glow, and this aids her otherwise dark world. She lives in Shadow because there is so much magic there: she can see better. Or, to put it better, she is drawn to magic. Vision is a happy side effect. Her blindness is fascinating not least because she works as a visual artist, and does her best work as a painter.

This gives Jemisin the opportunity to do some interesting sensory work, playing with the visual arts and other senses, like the smells and textures that accompany different colors of paint. I love the way Oree’s vision and blindness work with magic. Here and in other plot threads, we continue to develop this fictional world and its rules – what happens when gods and mortals have babies, for examples. Also as in book one, there is a mortal who shares sex – and maybe even love – with gods and godlings. This series does involve romance, and sex. We’re talking about only one or two sex scenes per novel, but they are some of the best I’ve read.

Oree is a lovely protagonist and narrator, with a complicated past, frustrated and foolhardy – or brave – enough to stand up to those in power, godlings, even gods. She takes in a mysterious stranger and discovers a murdered godling, and finds herself embroiled in matters way over her paygrade – or are they? Jemisin continues to explore big themes (like the sins of our fathers, for example). Not for the first time, I am reminded that even in sci fi/fantasy, the lessons can be very much about humans. (I’m thinking again about the Lilith’s Brood series, as well as the rest of Jemisin’s outstanding work.) Also, this series is undeniably sexy. I’m pretty excited about book three, and looking for more.


Rating: 8 windows.

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Brilliant again. I have a new favorite author. Write more, Alix Harrow.

There’s no such thing as witches, but there used to be.

James Juniper Eastwood is the youngest of three sisters, the one left behind. Their mother died when Juniper was born; their late grandmother, Mama Mags, had been a beloved teacher and friend, but their father was abusive. As the book begins, this youngest sister – the wild, reckless one – has left her family’s rural land and headed into the city of New Salem, a fugitive from justice and alone in the world. Imagine her surprise when she immediately encounters the middle sister, the strongest and the beauty, Agnes Amaranth, and the eldest, Beatrice Belladonna, a bookish woman (quiet, listening) now working as (of course) a librarian. She is further surprised to learn that Agnes and Beatrice have not been in touch since they left her behind all those seven years ago.

So opens The Once and Future Witches in the spring of 1893. New Salem is vibrating with the tension of women’s suffrage and the backlash of a mayoral candidate who claims to offer “light against the darkness” but would really like to reinstate Old Salem’s treatment of suspected witches. Both issues turn on the question of women’s power, or whether they should have any at all. Juniper is predictably full-speed-ahead, unhesitant to stop at any mean’s – including Mama Mags’s spells or wholesale violence – to advance women’s freedoms. Beatrice is inclined to keep her head down. Agnes has been working hard to scrape a living on a mill girl’s salary, and she’s just discovered that she’ll need to scrape as well for the baby she’s carrying. However, despite their wishes, it seems that the Eastwood sisters are tied to each other’s fates – and to the possible return of the Lost Tower of Avalon and the Last Three, Maiden, Mother and Crone, those fabled witches from back when women held real power.

Witching has perhaps not died out entirely. “Back home every mama teaches her daughters a few little charms to keep the soup-pot from boiling over or make the peonies bloom out of season. Every daddy teaches his sons how to spell ax-handles against breaking and rooftops against leaking.” “Witch-blood runs thick in the sewers,” it’s said: poor folk have held onto the minor spells and charms longer than respectable ones have. And if witching sounds very gendered so far, never fear. The Eastwood sisters will explore all sorts of boundaries, including the question of whether men can work women’s magic and vice versa, and whether those categories even make sense. They will find romance with people of various genders; they will reassess the archetypes of Maiden, Mother and Crone. (“Every woman is usually at least one of those. Sometimes all three and a few others besides.”) They will learn to question what it really takes to be a witch in the first place.

This novel is a lightning-paced, page-turning read at over 500 pages; but it does a lot of twisty-turny work in that space, too, and I don’t want to do much plot summary for fear of spoilers. Harrow’s world-building is delightful, but part of the delight is watching the rules shift and change. The sisters do band together, and there are big fights to be fought, along with the other women – and men, and people who challenge those labels – of this big, diverse, fascinating world. (The novel remains set in New Salem, but the battles are decidedly global.) I love how intersectional are the issues: the vote for women, witchcraft, labor rights, class, race, sexuality and gender, pockets. (“This is the precise reason why women’s dresses no longer have pockets, to show they bear no witch-ways or ill intentions.”)

I adore these characters, and the way they both play to type (Maiden, Mother, Crone) and subvert them. Juniper is obviously a hero – she’s the one who knows that “the trick to doing something stupid is to do it very quickly, before anyone can shout wait!” But Agnes and Bella (who eventually drops the more staid ‘Beatrice’ for her mother’s-name, Belladonna) offer perhaps more depths and complexities. Juniper’s devotion to the cause, and to her sisters, could hardly be questioned; but because they spread their loyalties a little further, Agnes and Bella arguably have to make harder choices to stand by what they believe in. There are many loveable, interesting secondary characters, but it is Miss Cleo Quinn, fearless Black journalist and very special friend to one of the Eastwoods in particular, who holds the fourth spotlight on this stage. She has secrets and baggage of her own, but once committed, she never looks back. A handsome union organizer and an older librarian show that men have a lot to offer in this world, too. And that “men really ought to try offers of fealty rather than flowers” more often.

There is so much to love here. Complex plotting, thorough world-building, lovely, growing-and-changing characters, humor, romance, intersectionality, women’s rights, librarians and scholars, badassery. I’m completely sold, just need more from this author.


Rating: 9.5 snake’s teeth.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Jemisin remains outstanding. I can’t get enough.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first in another trilogy (hooray!), and again I’m hooked. At its start, we meet a narrator who writes,

I am not as I once was… I do not know who I am anymore.

I must try to remember.

Her narrative comes in fits and starts; she sometimes has to back up and restart, because she is truly trying to remember as she tells her story. Her mother was an heiress of the privileged, ruling class, who gave up her birthright to marry a man from outside that class. Yeine (our narrator) has grown up in Darre, her father’s land. At nineteen, she is a chieftain there, and recently orphaned, when she is called before her maternal grandfather, effectively ruler of their known world. After considerable travel, she arrives at his court at Sky where he names her his heir, which shocks everyone – Yeine herself not least – especially because he already has two competing heirs. And so Yeine is thrown into a dangerous game of politics and intrigue, peopled by players she does not know.

Except not just people.

There were three gods once.

Only three, I mean. Now there are dozens, perhaps hundreds. They breed like rabbits. But once there were only three, most powerful and glorious of all: the god of day, the god of night, and the goddess of twilight and dawn. Or light and darkness and the shades in between. Or order, chaos, and balance. None of that is important because one of them died, the other might as well have, and the last is the only one who matters anymore.

And the dangerous game that Yeine is now playing, against her will, involves various gods as well as ruthless people.

I love the plotting and intrigue, and the characterization. I love the mythology of gods, their relationships and shifting allegiances, and that old concept that the gods are apt to be just more powerful versions of us, in all our pettiness and flaws: “We made you in our image, remember.” There are some positively dynamite sex scenes (sex with a god), and some very relateable human moments: missing one’s parents, struggling to figure out an unfamiliar culture, and (one that the romcoms love) a so-called barbarian wrestling with becoming a princess overnight. I also appreciate the nuances in narration by a character whose identity, whose very self, changes over the course of her story. Yeine’s issues with memory are challenges of perspective, too.

As usual, Tor.com has written an excellent review (in this case by Kate Nepveu) that I’ll direct you to here, borrowing just a brief snip:

…the book is beautifully paced, with plot happenings and worldbuilding revelations coming at just the right intervals to make the book extremely hard to put down. It surprised me considerably more than once, and while other people may be better at predicting plot than I am, the book doesn’t depend on surprise for its force.

What can I say? Worldbuilding, plot, character, narrative voice, twists and turns. Can’t wait for more. Buy any & all Jemisin.


Rating: 8 marks.

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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