It’s the summer of 1901 and our narrator, January Scaller, is a seventeen year old girl being raised as a ward by her father’s wealthy benefactor, Mr. Locke. Locke is a rich man and a collector of rare and beautiful artifacts from around the world and beyond. To meet this end, he employs January’s father, Julian, to run across the world on expeditions, leaving his daughter behind.
Interlaced with January’s voicey first-person tale is a book-within-a-book, chapters from The Ten Thousand Doors, which January finds while rummaging around in Mr. Locke’s antiques. And she soon finds that the tale it spins interlocks with her own.
I preordered The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow a month in advance, wooed by the gorgeous cover and its concept. I’m a total sucker for the combination of historical and speculative, and went in with very high expectations. Before going any further here, understand that I am absolutely the kind of reader that loves focus on internal conflict. I can easily overlook slow plot for pages of winding emotional landscapes. The driving forces in The Ten Thousand Doors of January are largely external with occasional character insights.
The first half delivered on its promise of a one-of-a-kind portal fantasy. I was wooed instantly by the prose which bloomed with wild imagery and powerful metaphor—something I adore. January has such a distinct voice with so many insights into how power, race and class have shaped her life. Her first encounter with the blue Door is nothing short of magical. In short, I was hooked. Though, I will admit, I found it difficult to part with the powerful thrust of January’s narrative to wade through the more scholarly chapters—at first. But those chapters from The Ten Thousand Doors feature some truly inspired writing.
Unfortunately, the back half of this book felt very underdeveloped. There were too many small parts just not working for me. The tone loses its historical roots; the dialogue and language become more modern as the book progresses, abandoning almost entirely that charming tone established early on. Reveals and twists felt obvious and landed without impact. More than once, I finished a climactic scene completely unsure what had just happened, only to read it again and find I was still unclear. The minimalistic approach to scene description left many blank spaces which felt like huge missed opportunities; I never felt as if I could really see the lush worlds promised in this story’s pitch.
Because it spans such a long period of time, there’s little space left to really understand January’s companions: Jane and Samuel. We run across the surface of the plot at such a quick pace, there are very few opportunities to sit and learn about anyone. The promise of character depth is here, but the story never really finds its way beneath the surface. Many, many terrible things happen to January—to her family and to her companions, but for me, there is never any real opportunity for their trauma to be felt.
For those who love a good fantasy romp with a driving first-person narrative, this book is for you. It’s a quick story with a lot of memorable moments you will absolutely spend the following weeks daydreaming about. But, a lingering question remains: is the concept strong enough to overcome its flaws?
The brilliant prose saved this book for me, and I will not stop thinking about this world, or its characters anytime soon.
Casey Reinhardt is the lead editor for Timeworn. She is also writes historical and speculative fiction. You can find her toiling away at a desk in Buffalo, NY where she dreams up madness, most of which makes its way into a story or poem. Her work can be found in Apparition Lit and Exoplanet Magazine among others. Find her on twitter @yoscully.