A Love Letter to Portal Fantasy: A Review of Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January

No one really remembers their own origins. Most of us possess a kind of hazy mythology about our early childhood, a set of stories told and retold by our parents, interwoven with our blurred baby memories. They tell us about the time we nearly died crawling down the stairs after the family cat; the way we used to smile in our sleep during thunderstorms; our first words and steps and birthday cakes. They tell us a hundred different stories, which are all the same story: We love you, and have always loved you.

I will have to let this book sit in my chest for a few more days before I decide if I have found a new favourite author. It is almost unfair that a debut novel can be this good, and I felt both jealousy and admiration burn on the same wick, lighting my way further and further into this book until I was done. There are very few authors so gifted with words that they can effortlessly illustrate the smallest denominations of thoughts and emotions, describing things vividly that exist only as incorporeal smoke in our minds. Every few pages, I would come across a line or a turn of phrase that delights me so much that I was driven to find someone and read it at them against their will.

This is how Ms Harrow describes stoicism:

As a general rule I’m not a person who cries much. When I was younger I cried over everything from sneers to sad endings, and even once over a puddle of tadpoles that dried up in the sun, but at some point I learned the trick of stoicism: you hide. You pull yourself inside your castle walls and crank up the drawbridge and watch everything from the tallest tower.

And this is her take on hope:

You don’t really know how high your hopes have gotten until you watch them plummeting earthward.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January reads like a story I already know—perhaps from a previous life—that I am only rediscovering. Maybe it is because it treads on familiar grounds and doesn’t seek to reinvent the wheel, harbouring only ambitions to perfect it. There are many stories in the fantasy canon that takes place in worlds beyond ours. They can exist hidden alongside ours, accessible only by train from a hidden platform; or they can exist in an entirely different universe, tethered only to our own through a wardrobe or pools of water. It had been fashionable in recent decades to interrogate such works with a more cynical, deconstructive eye like Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Grossman’s The Magicians, but Ms Harrow gifted us, instead, an achingly sincere and wholesome entry into the genre. Sometimes, it is exactly what our souls need. It is a healing book.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a story about stories, and a story about doors, which are also stories. It is about a biracial girl named January—after the Roman deity of doors, Janus, who have two faces or aspects so he can watch both the future and the past, the entry and the exit. The symbolism is deliciously unsubtle, and already we have ourselves a hero destined in name to be the Campbellian Mistress of Two Worlds. This book is also a multitude of books, and in its own way, it is a sequel to a book nestled within it. I have said earlier than this is a very well written book but I would also have you know that it is a very well-constructed book as well. Everything slides into place very satisfyingly, like an expertly carpentered Japanese puzzle box—and not one of those frustrating kinds that you struggle to take apart, and later, unable to put back together.

I am very glad that fiction is now quite eager to examine contemporary social issues (sometimes overeager) but they run the risk of coming across as pontificative. The Ten Thousand Doors of January does in fact wade into matters of gender, race and class, but it never felt so overbearing that it loses sight of its story, which is intertwined organically with these matters. One of the things it did was question the strictures of propriety and polite society, and how they serve the powerful and the moneyed rather than those that society deems “uncultured”, “rude” or “savage”. Consider how strongly the Hong Kong protesters last year were condemned for being disruptive, for causing the loss of revenue and arresting commerce, even before the escalation of violence. This particular line struck quite a note with me:

“Hello, sir,” I whispered. The will to be polite, to maintain civility and normalcy, is fearfully strong. I wonder sometimes how much evil is permitted to run unchecked simply because it would be rude to interrupt it.

When I was about a third of the way into this book, I was suddenly beset by a suspicion and consulted the internet to satisfy it: and just as I suspected, Ms Harrow is a fellow fan of Susanna Clarke and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell! Apart from the twee-ness of her writing style, Ms Harrow also employed liberal use of footnotes (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is notorious for having footnotes that span several whole pages), and they are a huge source of amusement for me, functioning as mini-stories, while adding richness to the layered world-building of the book.

Here is an example:

… Consider Thomas Aikenhead, a young man both an orphan and a cripple, who published an ill-advised manifesto suggesting that heaven was an actual place located just on the other side of a small shabby door in an old Scottish church. He allowed for the possibility that the place was actually hell, or perhaps purgatory, but concluded that it was certainly a “warm, sunny place, much preferable to Scotland.” He was hanged within the year for blasphemy.

Thomas Aikenhead, “A Tract on Magick and the Entrance to Heaven,” 1695.

And here is an example of a footnote offering social commentary:

There is, of course, no such thing as a fallen woman, unless we are speaking of a woman who recently tripped on the stairs. One of the most difficult elements of this world is the way its social rules are simultaneously rigid and arbitrary. It is impermissible to engage in physical love before binding legal marriage, unless one is a young man of means. Men must be bold and assertive, but only if they are light-skinned. Any persons may fall in love regardless of station, but only if one is a woman and the other a man. I urge you not to navigate your own life by such faulty borders, my dear. There are, after all, other worlds.

While I do not think it matches the height that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell achieved in terms of style, immersion and proximity to the numinous, it is a far warmer book than Ms Clarke’s. There are genuinely moving moments—both familial and romantic—in this book that one can see coming from a great distance away, but one is still moved on an autonomic, visceral level when they finally arrive. There are so many layers of symbolism in this book that it would keep an English lit class occupied for weeks teasing apart ideas of identity, writing and world-building, the role of stories in families and in society, and the concept of thresholds in both figurative and material sense. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a very skillfully and lovingly written love letter to the power of narratives, and it is designed to make us fall in love all over again with the romance of escapist literature. Of all the works of fantasy and science fiction that was published in 2019, I would enthrone Ms Harrow’s stunning debut novel at the top of that pile. I recommend it wholeheartedly without reservations.

Rating: 4.75/5 Naga Pearls

If you like what you are reading, maybe you can Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com to keep this Naga caffeinated!

Published by A Naga of the Nusantara

A Naga is a divine dragon from Eastern Hindu-Buddhist tradition. The Nusantara is made up of nusa (island) and antara (between) and describes the Southeast Asian archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. This particular Naga is Malaysian, born and bred. He loves reading and hoarding books, and enjoys bothering humans with what he thinks of them.

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