Alix E. Harrow’s debut novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a standalone portal fantasy.
January Scaller rarely sees her beloved father, because Julian Scaller is absent running errands for wealthy Mr. Locke. She has been raised mainly by Mr. Locke’s servants. Her life is cozy and safe, but January increasingly feels that she is just one of Locke’s carefully guarded treasures. Not at all a person.
But a person who is a one-of-a-kind human, one who might not do well in the harsh outside world.
Julian and January first met Locke when she was a baby. In a world that hated the unclassifiable and unconventional, Julian was an outcaste, condemned by his tattoos and red-brown skin. Mr. Locke took pity on the pair and hired Julian as his agent. He took January into his mansion, promising to shelter her until she was of age.
Now things have changed. Julian fails to return from an errand. Locke tells January that it is likely that her dad is dead. Locke will take over as her guardian. How kind! Or so it would seem….
January begins to suspect that Locke hasn’t told her everything about her father and mother. (Don’t store incriminating documents where a bookish girl might find them.) January also begins to suspect that she has exceptional abilities. Abilities that might be of use to Locke. Abilities he plans to use.
In the world of this novel, there are Doors, passageways from one world to another. For some, they are passageways to strange, wondrous worlds; for others, they are a threat. January may hold a key to the doors, which makes her a tool or possibly a threat. If she’s a threat, she must be eliminated.
To be honest, I wasn’t really in the mood for a fantasy, nor for a book set in the early 20th century. Historical fantasies are not my thing. The Ten Thousand Doors of January has been almost making into my read-now stack ever since I received a copy of it. But the stack had dwindled to the point that I read the book faute de mieux. I am happy to have read it at last; this is one of the best debuts I have read this year. I plan to nominate it for the Hugo in 2020 (hastily checks the copyright date to avoid another mistake; I’m gun-shy after last year’s erroneous nomination of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms).
The novel is told from January’s point of view. She is waking up to the fact that she has been intentionally denied critical information. Mr. Locke feels that he’s doing her a service by keeping her in ignorance; he does like her and would regret having to discipline her. She also discovers that her sheltered upbringing has shielded her from the ugly realty of life in early 20th century America. She’s a POC; a great many white Americans see her as a lesser being. In the course of her real education, she is forced to face up to several unpleasant truths. That makes her a good guide to this less-than-best of all possible worlds.
The book is quite well written, though perhaps lacking in narrative urgency. Some readers may find the first half of the novel perhaps a bit too slow. Persist. The payoff is well worth it.