Author: Alix E. Harrow
Title: The Ten Thousand Doors of January
Alix E. Harrow’s debut novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, has made its rounds around the blogosphere over the last two years, with predominantly – almost exclusively, in fact – positive reviews. And that’s what I remembered about them: they were all positive, sometimes even raving, and all praising the author’s imagination and poetic language. I should’ve paid more attention to the elements that weren’t complimented, I think, armed as I am now with hindsight.
You see, there are indeed many things that The Ten Thousand Doors of January should be praised for, particularly a highly inventive use of the symbolism and meaning of portals, thresholds and doors, successfully employing plenty of references to various myths and folktales I’m a sucker for. It is an entertaining, character-focused book, with languorously meandering action and an interesting cast of secondary characters. It’s also incredibly earnest, in that endearing puppy way, all big eyes and enthusiasm.
But, as most debuts, it also suffers from the usual maladies of adolescence: first and foremost, it’s a YA book, and I’ve no more patience with this genre. All the usual YA trappings are here, with vengeance: a teen protagonist with a chip on her shoulder, in the throes of first love (or wuv, really, because that’s how it feels here); angst and emotionality turned up to 11; the bad, bad world not understanding nor caring about the utmost uniqueness of the protagonist; DRAAAMAAA!!!; and the worst offense in my book: a thoughtful construction of the world is substituted with a mishmash of tropes. There’s no going around it: the protagonist is a special snowflake in the extreme. And I mean it; she has special powers nobody else has, and what takes others decades of careful training she does naturally, instinctively, and more powerfully than anybody else. The price she pays for using these powers curiously becomes less and less, making her near unstoppable at the end – maybe because she’s filled with a glorious purpose. And angst.
“My heart – and I don’t think any heart has ever been so exhausted and wrung-dry in the history of the world – stuttered to life in my chest.” (p. 350)
Yeah, purplish prose is another problem. You call it lush, I call it overwrought.
Though what irked me more, at least at the beginning, was all the virtue signalling, all that – hopefully unthinking, because if premeditated it would be unseemly – social justice posturing, which is both anachronistic considering the book’s timeline and a way too easy escape from the necessity of actual book writing. It’s like showing off a collection of slogans to check if you’re the right audience. And you know what? I agree with the sentiments. Every single one of them. Racism is bad. Abuse is inexcusable. Colonialism was bad, as was – and is – patriarchalism, and we even can’t say for sure whether matriarchalism would’ve been better because we don’t have too much reliable information on any case of a well-developed modern matriarchal culture (well, maybe except for Mosuo and a few other small tribes across the globe, but that’s pretty small scale). Human relations should not be based on lies and exploitation. I agree, I agree! Stop bashing my head with it, please!
The problem is multifold; but a part of it is that in The Ten Thousand Doors of January we are constantly subjected to an inherently racist vision of the world, where skin color is the first and foremost thing our protagonist notices about everyone, herself included. She sees herself as colored until she realizes her mother was white; from then on, she calls herself “in-between”. Her twue wuv is an Italian, so “almost colored,” at least by 19th century America’s standards. Her chaperone is a black Amazon pining for her Utopian maternal community where females hunt and males wait for them in the villages with fat babies on their hips and jugs of freshly brewed beer. And the main villains are all – you guessed it – uniformly old and white and powerful and male. Why does any of it even matter? Why should those labels form the backbone of any novel? Use them, by all means, but don’t turn them into the main meaningful element of your narrative – at least if you intend to write a novel and not a political pamphlet.
That said, I don’t live in the States; I don’t know how politcized everyday life has become, whether everyone feels a need to draw a line in the sand and show their political colors, whether inherently political views on universal problems became a new norm or whether it’s just a quirk of this – and, truth be told, so many others lately – book. What I see in this, though, is a kind of short-sighted immediacy, a recording of a transient mood, coloring everything in black and white, or red and blue. I long for subtlety. For depth. For something more than slogans and easy finger-pointing and easy but not working solutions. If love was really the answer, I think we’d get there by now.
I loved the main concept of doors joining our and other worlds. I think it has so much potential, because in human cultures the doors and thresholds were – and are – always so important, so symbolic and full of meaning. I enjoyed Harrow’s iteration of the hero’s journey, even if it was very predictable and the hero was unaccountably dim for the most part. I enjoyed reading about the various strong female side characters, each unique and interesting in their own way, and Aunt Lizzie was the most memorable of them all even though she appeared exactly three times in the book. I finished this novel in three days of lockdown, so it was a fairly quick and enjoyable read, and I rooted for January even when I scoffed at her character development arc from a wallflower to a superwoman. But I became tired of the YA vibes, tired of the collection of tropes that never seemed to end (there’s even an asylum for ill-behaving young women, I kid you not), tired of the unending political messages delivered in purple prose, and I felt that the book-within-a-book device, while needed, adversely affected the whole narrative, making it clunky and unwieldy and too predictable for any reader.
So while I can see the allure of this coming-of-age adventurous romance/romantic adventure, and I applaud the author’s sentiment, imagination and enthusiasm, I must report that The Ten Thousand Doors of January didn’t capture my imagination as much as I expected or hoped for.