The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Alix E. Harrow just won the 2019 Hugo Award for her short story, "A Witch's Guide To Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies." This was the story of a young man in foster care searching for a way out--and finding it, courtesy of a librarian-slash-witch who gave him a Book that let him open a door to the world of his heart.
This idea, that books can take us to other worlds both imagined and real, and words can work both metaphorical and literal magic, is expanded on here. This is the scientific concept of the multiverse, dressed up as a portal fantasy. It's a lovely book, about the power of words, the power of stories, and the power of love.
There are two intertwining threads here, one of the past of 1894, and one of the present of 1911. There are countless other worlds, and the people, animals, music, art and culture that travel between them. There are also those who want to control and ultimately close these Doors, because they believe the Doors are introducing "chaos" into our world and destabilizing the social order...not coincidentally, the social order that lets them stay on top. All these themes come to a head in the person of our protagonist, one January Scaller, who over the course of the book learns exactly who she is and where she came from, and takes the steps that free her and her family from the clutches of those who want to destroy them.
The worldbuilding and characterization (my two absolute must-haves) in this book are top-notch, slowly unfolding in a deliberate pace as January writes down what happened to her after the fact. (There's a specific reason for this--it's not done just to be cutesy--which will be explained by book's end.) The concept of the Doors, the main alternate world of the Written and its Wordworkers, and the antagonists known as the Society, are introduced gradually and naturally in the first half of the book. January also undergoes convincing and dramatic character development over the course of the story, changing from a timid, beaten-down "good girl" to a young woman who comes fully into her power, and who isn't "good" at all. (And just to reassure anyone concerned about her pet, the dog doesn't die.) The final comeuppance of the villain, the man January once thought of as her second father, is a bit horrifying, but it is earned and deserved.
More than that, however, this book is beautifully written. It's worth reading a little slower than you might otherwise do, just to savor the lovely metaphors and turns of phrase. For a writer, or someone hoping to be, it's a marvelous display of craft that's worth some careful study.
Altogether, this book is full-on fantastic. It's one of the best books I've read this year.
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