RogerBW's Blog

The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E. Harrow 04 May 2020

2019 young adult fantasy. In Gilded Age America, January Scaller lives in a mansion filled with peculiar treasures, and is something of a peculiar treasure herself. Her father travels for months on end, hunting for artefacts for Mr Locke. But it gradually becomes clear that what really matters is the doors between worlds…

On one level this is a young-adult story about breaking free from one's upbringing when it turns toxic and finding allies while making one's own way. And that works pretty well; its uses of racism and unchecked power are effective without being overblown.

On another it's a critique of portal fantasy. How is a world different when people can stumble in and out of it? How do the people in that world react to the knowledge? Well, they react like the people they already are. (To my mind that's one of the few mis-steps, when it turns out that the villains are abg whfg evpu crbcyr jub qba'g jnag gurve jbeyq trggvat nyy punbgvp – juvpu jbhyq unir orra rabhtu – ohg nyfb fhcreangheny zbafgref sebz bgure jbeyqf. Gung srryf yvxr gur gbb-rnfl bcgvba. Znxr gurz evpu crbcyr jub'ir yrnearq zntvp sebz ybbgrq bhgjbeyq gernfherf, naq sbe zr vg jbhyq unir jbexrq engure orggre.)

It's superb in its content, but particularly in the early chapters I found it sadly flabby. Yes, January has been brought up in a deliberately sheltered way and doesn't really understand what's going on at first (and it's good that her material comfort is shown as something she finds genuinely hard to give up), but it was a bit of a slog to get through all that setup to the meat of the book. Once one does, it's great, helped by the writing that economically sketches places and people in evocative ways. Similarly, there are no surprises in the plot, but it's a standard story told well.

I'll certainly read more by Harrow, but I was sad that this had so much crust before I got to the pie. Of the three Hugo-nominated novels I've read at this point, I'd put it above A Memory Called Empire but below The City in the Middle of the Night.

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