“Let that be a lesson to you: If you are too good and too quiet for too long, it will cost you. It will always cost you, in the end.”
“Page riffling is an essential element in the process of introducing oneself to a new book. It isn't about reading the words; it's about reading the smell, which wafts from the pages in a cloud of dust and wood pulp. It might smell expensive and well bound, or it might smell of tissue-thin paper and blurred two-colour prints, or of fifty years unread in the home of a tobacco-smoking old man. Books can smell of cheap thrills or painstaking scholarship, or literary weight or unsolved mysteries.”
I checked out The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow twice, checked it out, kept it a few days, and then returned it so the next person on the hold list could have it. This wasn’t because I wasn’t sure I’d like it—I was pretty sure I would—but because I wanted the exact right time to read it. That time finally came at the end of December, once the busyness of Christmas was past and I had some time off from work for relaxing. And I had an entire Sunday when Kendell and I didn’t go hiking (he is recovering from a baker’s cyst in his calf) and so mostly I just lay around and read.
I literally cannot remember the last time I just lay around and read.
It was lovely, and this book was perfect for that time, because in addition to being a book about adventure between the worlds, it’s also a book about books—how they shape and influence us, how they let us escape sometimes, how they sometimes save us. In a round-about way, it is also a book about the importance of every individual’s story, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Early in the 20th century, January Scaller is a girl growing up without a father. She has one, but he is often away, pursing antiques for his employer, Mr. Locke. She lives in Locke’s Vermont mansion, which is stuffed with all sorts of strange objects, first with a series of nannies and then with her dog Bad and companion Jane. One day, when she is a young girl traveling in the south, she runs away from the hotel and finds herself in a field that’s mostly empty, except for a crumbling ruin with a blue door frame. When she crosses through the door, she finds herself, very briefly, in another world, looking down at a white stone city on an island. She finds a coin near the doorway but hears Mr. Locke calling for her, angrily, and so grabs the coin and goes back.
This formative experience is the starting point for January’s adventures. They are wound up with a book she finds in box in Locke’s house, which is a sort-of scholarly telling of the concept of Doors, connections between different worlds. I could tell you what happens but really: it’s a book best read by discovering it. January compares books to Doors quite often, how you can slip through them and be somewhere else, somewhere foreign you can come to understand, and this is a book just like that.
One thing I can write, without spoiling it, is how the story resonated with me. One of the threads is the concept of a girl who has to figure out how to be who she really is, not who the people who "love" her want her to be. (If we really love someone, don't we want them to be exactly who they are?) As this is a process I feel I am constantly experiencing, I enjoy reading about it in novels, too. That January figures this out via words is especially satisfying.
The fantasy elements, too, resonated. I was a dreamy child, of course, since I read so much, and after I read the Narnia books I haven’t stopped, on some subconscious level, looking for the door in the wardrobe, the way into some other place. But I also loved old objects. One of my favorite things was to stand in my grandma’s bedroom and riffle through her jewelry box. It smelled of cedar and had old things in it, buttons and necklaces and broken watches and silver coins. I would hold something and wonder: what is its story? Where did it come from? Who wore it, how was it broken, why is it still here in this box?
So the objects from other worlds in this book, and even the very concept of other worlds—my 8-year-old self responded as well as my adult self, because I still love old objects and still wonder about their stories and I still—even at almost 50—I still have a part of me who watches for Doors. I wouldn’t have put it exactly that way before reading the Ten Thousand Doors of January, but it is a useful construct so I will keep it. Logically I know no one really finds Doors (except maybe that is what death is) but the part of me that was shaped by imagination doesn’t care about logic. She just loves that stories like this exist, and that books will always open.
Read Alikes: (This year I am going to include a few read alikes for every book I review. Just a few books that are similar in some ways to the one I just read.)
The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay
The Wayward Children series by Seanan Mcguire
Darker Shade of Magic series by Victoria Schwab
The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly
Strange the Dreamer series by Laini Taylor