OUT SEPTEMBER 10TH! Thank you to Redhook Books and Netgalley for providing me with an advance review copy in exchange for an honest review.
When I read Alix H. Harrow’s short story “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” in the February 2018 issue of Apex magazine, I cried. That story hits on a very deeply rooted value I hold in librarianship and illustrates the life-saving abilities of literacy.
In it, a librarian watches a young boy come in to the library time and time again, lingering longer each time, using the books to escape whatever real life horrors were happening outside of the stacks. In the story, the librarian is a witch. There are rules to the magic of librarianship. Some magical books are not to be offered to patrons, and there is knowledge that should be locked away safely, protected. The librarian knows this, and she knows what will happen to her if she breaks those ancient rules. But she also knows the exact book this boy needs to break free of his oppressive life and find happiness in a new world. She gives him the book and watches him escape to better life, risking her own exile and ostracism.
This is important to me not only because of the obvious metaphor concerning literacy, education, and freedom, but also because of what it says about librarianship. It’s hard to explain fully to folks who don’t work in libraries, but there is a bit of a split between librarians and what we think librarianship should be. I belong to the camp of disobedient witches.
I bring all of this up to say that Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January is written with just as much passion using similar plot devices and metaphors, and it’s fucking beautiful. January Scaller and her father Julian are outsiders to the wealthy white elite of Vermont in the early 1900s. The color of their skin makes that known immediately. But January has the privilege of growing up in a fine mansion under the care of their benefactor, Mr. Locke. Julian travels the world for Mr. Locke, bringing back rare artifacts stolen from other cultures in exchange for taking care of his daughter. Mr. Locke then takes these items and “safely” preserves them by locking them away in dusty rooms and cases.
January is a strong-willed child who enjoys penny dreadfuls and fantastical stories. But when she hits her mid teens she starts to see that her own world is more fantastical than she could ever imagine. In fact, it’s magical. January discovers that there are Doors in their world. Yes, with a capital D. These Doors open to other worlds, different cultures, different creatures. Some of these Doors leak and bring wonderful items and ideas into our world. These ideas and items inspire progress and positive change, but not everyone thinks that’s a good thing.
It becomes very clear very fast that January and her father have a deep connection to these Doors, and there are evil people hunting them because of this. When her father disappears, January sets off on the quest of a lifetime with a few loyal allies through her world and others. She fights for herself, the worlds she visits, and her family that felt (until recently) horribly fractured.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January felt like scrappy fight in the name of family and acceptance. Harrow’s writing is very tender yet strong in its vulnerability. And it’s vulnerability that Harrow uses to expertly craft her stunning characters and their emotional motivations and actions. January is such a strong character and fascinating. She fails again and again. She puts herself and others in danger. She gets backed up against a wall multiple times, but her resourcefulness and her pure love for her friends and family gives her the strength to push forward, even when she thinks it will kill her. The entire book feels like a battle cry for anyone who has struggled to find their true world where they belong.
This is a an exciting and heartfelt coming of age story. January faces both painful and empowering truths as her old life falls apart and she takes her new-found control to fight for a new one, one that is truly for her. Her tenacity and spirit bring her through, making this book an uplifting and adventurous ride. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves historical fiction, magical adventure, portal fantasies, and the triumph of love for family.