book review – The Ten Thousand Doors of January

The Ten Thousand Doors of January embraces the power of words and the magic of stories to pen an ode to freedom, adventure, and empowerment … it’s a heart-felt rallying cry to the oppressed, the in-betweens, the wonderers, and the wanderers.

‘quite possibly the most achingly beautiful novel I’ve ever read, and I find it mind-boggling that anything this lovely could possibly be a debut novel . . . Harrow is more than an author; she is a wordsmith, a sorceress wielding a pen in place of a wand’
Novel Notions

what it says on the cover …

According to January Scaller, there’s only one way to run away from your own story, and that’s to sneak into someone else’s …

In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr Locke, she feels little different from the artefacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored and utterly out of place.

But her quiet existence is shattered when she stumbles across a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page reveals more impossible truths about the world, and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.

Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow

SHELF: magical realism | historical fiction
MY RATING: ★★★★☆
AUTHOR: Alix E. Harrow
PUBLISHER: Orbit (Little Brown)
FORMATS: Hardback | Paperback | Kindle | Audiobook
PUBLISHED: September 2019

‘Doors are change, and change is a dangerous necessity. Doors are revolutions and upheavals, uncertainties and mysteries, axis points around which entire worlds can be turned. They are the beginnings and endings of every true story, the passages between that lead to adventures and madness, and even love.’
book excerpt

my review

At 371 pages, The Ten Thousand Doors of January isn’t unusually long, but its stories are intricate, astonishingly rich, and bursting with a vibrancy that deserves your full attention.  It’s a book to spend time with; burgeoning with gems and expertly woven plots that’ve somehow been harnessed (but not tamed) and contained with the pages. The cadence of the stories enveloped me … it felt like emerging from a profoundly lucid dream when I had to put the book down.  

Before I get stuck in to my review I feel it’s only right to mention that beautiful cover.  I’ll happily admit it’s the cover that convinced me I needed to buy the book.  Even now – and it’s been on my shelves for over a year (explanation later) – I still feel a little giddy-joy when I look at it!  I also feel I ought to explain that there is more than one book in this book.  I hadn’t realised this until I reached the end of chapter two, and found myself turning over the page to find … eh? … chapter one.  I’m sure you’re more observant than me, but keep an eye on the chapter headings and you’ll know when you’re moving from one narrative to another.

Writing this review is going to be like trying to keep a headcount of Russian matryoshka dolls in a hall of mirrors, so please bear with me if I occasionally wonder off track … 

January Scaller is just seven years old when she first discovers a Door. It leads from an overgrown field in Kentucky to a world that smells of salt water, warm stone and promise.  To January, it’s like stepping into one of her beloved adventure books; books she shares with her one and only friend, Samuel.  Since she was a tiny baby, January has been living under the guardianship of Mr William Cornelius Locke; an affluent businessman and collector of priceless artefacts.  Financially, she wants for nothing … but her life is as closeted and carefully curated as Locke’s treasures, and her loneliness is sometimes difficult to witness.  

For January, adventure and exploration consume her every waking thought – when she’s not reading Samuel’s story papers, she’s writing her own tales in the diary she found in a pretty blue treasure chest in Locke’s pharaoh room.  Every now and then, the black cloud shrouding January lifts as her beloved, sad-eyed father arrives back at Locke House, bringing with him the scent of faraway lands and grand stories. His stays are always too short before he’s sent on his way again, collecting treasures and rarities for Locke, and his shadowy New England Archeological Society.

With her red-brown skin and wild hair, January is paraded by Locke like a savage treasure, and treated as a peculiarity by his exclusively white associates.  It’s quite sickening to read these passages, but the author throws January a lifeline in the form of ginger-haired, golden-eyed puppy gifted by her true friend Samuel. She calls him Sinbad – Bad, for short – and they’re inseparable from the first moment.  Bad’s intolerance of January’s dreadful German nursemaid, and Locke’s shamelessly intrusive acquaintances makes for some wonderful retaliatory humour. And Bad isn’t the only chink of light to arrive in January’s life; mysteriously, her father sends Jane to be her companion and protector. 

‘Those of you who are more than casually familiar with books – those of you who spend your free afternoons in fusty bookshops, who offer furtive, kindly strokes along the spines of familiar titles – understand that page riffling is an essential element in the process of introducing oneself to a new book. It isn’t about reading the words; it’s about reading the smell, which wafts from the page in a cloud of dust and wood pulp. It might smell expensive and well bound, or it might smell of tissue-thin paper and blurred two-colour prints, or of fifty years unread in the home of a tobacco-smoking old man. Books can smell of cheap thrills or painstaking scholarship, of literary weight or unsolved mysteries.’
book excerpt

The day before her seventeenth birthday proves to be a turning point for January. Having just discovered a scruffy, leather-bound book in the blue chest, January is called to Locke’s office where he imparts the dreadful news that her father is missing, presumed dead.  This is the moment her world changes forever; the moment when January starts to question the life she’s been leading, and the influence of Locke on both her and her father’s fortunes. With Jane and Bad for company, and the leather-bound book – mysteriously titled, The Ten Thousand Doors – as their guide, January sets out on an expedition of her own.

I found myself really enjoying the arrival of the enigmatic Jane, and I’d go so far as to say she became my favourite character. Her story reveals itself cautiously as the plot progresses, but whilst she played a pivotal role in the direction of the book, her character seemed to be left to fade out in the final chapters, rather than affording her the conclusion she deserves. This is my biggest disappointment in the book and, after much pondering, made the difference between a 5-star and a 4-star rating. Her brave humility felt like a breath of fresh air in contrast to some of January’s more frustrating traits, and without her character I’m not certain I would have finished the book.

At times, the book dips out of January’s story and into chapters from The Ten Thousand Doors. This mysterious little book, written by Yule Ian Scholar, documents the phenomena of Doors (not to be confused with doors) as thresholds between one world and another.  It also tells the story of Adelaide Lee and her travels between worlds.  Whilst there is a fond indulgence to the tone of January’s chapters, those narrated by Yule Ian were initially more ponderous, and I found my attention slipping a little. They are, however, peppered with reverential nods to many well known fairytales, folk stories and fables … I loved stumbling across hints of Narnia or Oz, catching fleeting shadows of Gulliver, Alice and Dorothy, and glimpses of glass slippers or breadcrumb trails.  These were genuinely delightful touches.

Mercifully, chapters from Yule Ian’s book quickly gather pace and magnitude.  They become a source of revelation and discovery too, as the story within these particular pages start to take on an unexpectedly biographical importance to January.  Mirroring the increasing danger facing January, Yule Ian starts to document his own fears that he’s being followed on his travels, and the Doors he discovers are being closed – destroyed – in his wake.

For all its magical lyricism, the story can’t hide some unpalatable truisms of the era; themes of cultural theft, sexism, racism and slavery are simmering beneath the surface, with a small number of wealthy men abusing their status for personal gain.  They seek to restrict and prevent anything and everyone that poses a threat to their self-appointed power; troublesome women can be committed to the asylum, outsiders can be silenced, and Doors must be closed.  The more deeply I became immersed in the book the more strongly I felt that the Doors are a threshold between power and empowerment; and each time a Door is destroyed so too is its gift for igniting change and enlightenment.  

In stark contrast to these deeply unpleasant individuals, however, are four wonderful, strong characters; Jane, Adelaide, Molly, and Liik.  These four women breathe strength and hope into the story;  Jane, the loyal and brave protector; Adelaide, the fiercely independent adventurer; Molly, the founder of a new city for the runaways; and gender-defying huntress Liik whose husbands (yes, plural!) cook dinner and mind the children at home.  Each of them has a pivotal role to play in January’s own emancipation and self-discovery. 

The warm fluidity of the writing leads you from one beautifully rendered scene to another, developing bonds between the characters, and exposing the fragility of relationships.  I found this particularly finely nuanced in the portrayal of Mr Locke; his ice-cold eyes and controlling behaviour should have made me dislike him immediately, but through January’s charitable narration I kept finding redemptive outlets; he’s lonely … men at the turn of the century weren’t comfortably paternal … he’s beholden to the sentiments of the era. I held on to this optimism precisely as long as January did; right until the very moment it became impossible to ignore his true nature.

Whilst the early chapters of the book are exploratory, the latter chapters are abundant with danger, revelations, and ‘ohhh, I see’ moments.  The pace increases noticeably in the second half of the book, and I found it harder to tear myself away as the tension intensified. With each passing chapter, things that were shimmering on the periphery of my understanding would pop into focus, although sometimes the missing pieces fell into place a little too neatly.  Having said that, however, the epilogue is undoubtedly (and pleasingly) a Door that’s been propped open.

My copy of The Ten Thousand Doors of January has languished on my shelves since I bought it in the autumn of 2019. Why? Because the hype and plaudits have been so effusive that I slipped into a catatonic fear that I might not get the same buzz from it.  I could not have been more wrong. It’s an astonishing book … the author’s imagination, storytelling and composition is mind-boggling. It cajoles the inner child-at-heart, temporarily loosening the strictures and boundaries of our grown-up selves in favour of our credulous, inquisitive desire to believe in something a bit special.

‘Well. Now at least you can look clear-eyed into your own future, and choose: stay safe and sane at home, as any rational person would.
or run away with me towards the glimmering, mad horizon. Dance through this eternal green orchard, where ten thousand worlds hang ripe and red for the plucking; wander with me between the trees, tending them, clearing away the weeds, letting in the air.
Opening the Doors.
book excerpt

I’ve read my copy of Ten Thousand Doors of January as a buddy-read with Peter Donnelly.  Thank you Peter for being so patient with me for my first buddy-read!  This has been the perfect book to share and discuss with a friend, as it’s so packed with themes, details, and perspectives.  We rather hope, too, that you’ve spotted our decision to read and review this book in January in reverence to book’s title.  Peter shares his fabulous book reviews on his site, The Reading Desk, and you can read his review of this book here.

alix harrow

I’ve been a student and a teacher, a farm-worker and a cashier, an ice-cream-scooper and a 9-to-5 office-dweller. I’ve lived in tents and cars, cramped city apartments and lonely cabins, and spent a summer in a really sweet ’79 VW Vanagon Westfalia. I have library cards in at least five states. Now I’m a full-time writer living in with my husband and two semi-feral kids in Berea, Kentucky. It is, I’m very sure, the best of all possible worlds.

#TenThousandDoors | @orbitbooks | @AlixEHarrow
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9 thoughts on “book review – The Ten Thousand Doors of January

  1. This is a stunning review, Sarah. It reflects my thoughts on the book very well and I agree with so many of your points. I don’t reread many books, but I definitely plan to pick this one up again in future. The story is magical in many ways and the writing very beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 👏🏻😁 I’m really pleased. I was the same – I had may copy for about a year before I read it. It’s one of those books so hyped that it becomes a bit daunting to read. I hope you love it x


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