Imagine a world where Doors in random locations can transport you to another place, another time. Imagine being a seventeen year old girl whose father has disappeared and left behind only a notebook with a story that seems fantastical but turns out to be true. Imagine being that girl, being Black in the early 1900s, under the care of a wealthy white guardian with ties to a shady global organization that smuggles priceless artifacts around the world. And imagine searching the world for your father while being on the run from this organization. It’s a fascinating, exciting premise, and at first glance, The Ten Thousand Doors of January is exactly the kind of fantasy novel I’d eat up.
Unfortunately, I was bored for most of the book, and kept going only because I’d requested it for review. I should preface that by saying that the writing is good; Harrow has a languid, lyrical narration style that reminds me of classic children’s stories. She also has beautiful, vivid descriptions. I can imagine other readers falling under the spell of her writing and being completely captivated by this story.
I found it too slow, and too much in love with far too many details. The story begins with a meditation on the nature of Doors, and linked to that, the beauty of words and the letters that make up words. It’s a love letter of sorts to language, and it ends up fitting with what we later learn of how Doors work, but it went on far too long for me. And while I can imagine some readers being charmed by the passage that goes into detail on the aesthetics of a single letter, I just wanted to get on with the plot.
The nature of Doors opening up to other worlds and other times offers many wonderful opportunities to explore beyond the more mundane world January grew up in, but I think there were just too many diversions, and too little of a connecting thread for me. There was a section about a place where the birds release only one feather a day and it’s such a valued item that residents chase the birds for the privilege of receiving that single feather for the day. It’s a lovely passage, and fits in beautifully with the fantastical nature of the setting, but it just didn’t move me. I think it’s partly because the settings aren’t quite fantastical enough to fully take me out of reality (like Narnia might have), yet not quite grounded enough to make me care on a rational level.
I do like the way January has to figure out how to navigate the world as a Black girl within a primarily white, wealthy community. I like how the author shows the pity and condescension her guardian and his friends subject her to, all within a veneer of politeness and affection.
I also really like the story written in the book January’s father left her. I love the romance between the Black scholar and the wealthy white adventuress, and I especially love how their relationship developed over time. I found myself hooked by that story far more than by January’s, and I wish it could have gone on a bit longer than it did.
The subplot about January’s father travelling the world had promise, especially with how it linked up to the shady group of wealthy men who want to steal valuable artifacts from around the world for their own collections. We see a bit of this group with how they chase after January, but honestly, I wanted to read a lot more about their operations, and any of the various external forces who are surely trying to take them down.
Overall, Ten Thousand Doors has an intriguing premise, and will likely charm many readers, but it just wasn’t for me. I think I would have preferred a swashbuckling romance adventure from Yule the scholar’s perspective, or an international crime-busting thriller on the smuggling organization, or perhaps a more fully fantastical, magical narrative.
TW: animal cruelty (I almost DNF’d the book after that scene)
Thank you to Redhook Books for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.