Book review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
It seems natural to categorise The Ten Thousand Doors of January as a young-adult book, but the truth is that it's likely to appeal to readers of any age who remember what it was once like to have the ability to imagine a wide world of endless possibilities. Even if it's just as a reminder of classic adventure books you might have read as a child, Alix E. Harrow manages to recapture the excitement and wonder of those days brilliantly, the kind of possibilities offered by The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by Enid Blyton's Magic Faraway Tree books. Prepare to undertake a thrilling new journey into other worlds.
The setting of The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a classic period for adventure, the turn of the twentieth century, a time of change opening up exotic new worlds of invention and discovery. Those exciting new worlds seems to be tantalisingly out of reach for the 'odd coloured' 9 year-old January Scaller in Vermont, New England, her adventures confined to the stuff of comic book adventures that she shares with Samuel the boy from the Zappia Grocery store. January's father however is constantly travelling, gathering collectible objects for a businessman and dealer, Mr Locke, who acts as January's guardian in his absence. Her father's stories of far off lands and perhaps her own 'in-between' nature means that January is a dreamer, a reader, longing for her own adventure, her own story.
One day however January discovers a door that briefly gives her a glimpse into a mysterious land of a town by the sea that promises magic and adventure, but her guardian Mr Locke is quick to put an end to any such fanciful ideas. January has no option but to bide her time, but she doesn't forget the wonder that has been opened up to her. It's only when she turns 17 and her father disappears, presumed lost on one of his expeditions that January starts to really feel the confinement of her life. The discovery of a leather bound book, The Ten Thousand Doors, suddenly opens up new horizons once again, but the book also has important things to tell her about her own life. The mysterious book 'Being a Comparative Study of Passages, Portals and Entryways in World Mythology' develops from an academic thesis into a story told by Yule Ian, a scholar in a world known as the Written, of the discover of another world through one such portal by Adelaide Lee Larson in Ninley Utah.
As an adventure, January, Adelaide and Yule Ian's stories are classic storybook adventure material, and it's not greatly original, tying a love of reading with entering into other worlds of magic storytelling, but there's more to The Ten Thousand Doors of January than just bibliophile book-sniffing. It's not just magic for the sake of magic, a celebration of the imagination of youth or of the wonder of books, but behind it is the idea that there is still 'magic' in our own world, in nature, in people, in places. There's a warning however that there is a coldness encroaching upon what was once beautiful, and it's modernity. Where there was once variety, now there is commonality and conformity, the world made a much smaller place. Shadowy agencies, 'vampires' are sucking the lifeforce out of the world, shutting doors that were once open to us.
It's a brilliant metaphor, but it isn't laboured and Alix E. Harrow doesn't let it get in the way of what is truly masterful storytelling, blending classical tropes with a fresh modern outlook, updating a particular young adult genre for a new generation, once that will also resonate with older readers who are still young at heart. You can never be too old to look for magic in the world, to understand that even in the present day the old saying that words have power still rings true. There are some powerful words and considerable magic in The Ten Thousand Doors of January.