Alix E. Harrow, The Ten Thousand Doors of January (2019)

Author: Alix E. Harrow

Title: The Ten Thousand Doors of January

Format: Paperback

Pages: 374

Series: –

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.

Score: 5/10

52 thoughts on “Alix E. Harrow, The Ten Thousand Doors of January (2019)

  1. I haven’t yet completed this one. I attempted it back when it was very popular but I was listening to the audiobook and felt like reading it instead, so I temporarily DNF’d it but haven’t yet returned. Yours is the first negative review I’ve seen, or review that isn’t gushing about it. The things you pointed out in it regarding race and the social justice posturing makes me want to return to it though to see how I’d react. Also, I find it interesting that you consider it YA. I considered it YA as well when it was published but I keep seeing it stocked in the adult sections in bookstores, so I got confused.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s so YA! I think it wasn’t advertised as one to gain a bigger readership, but to me this lack of mention of its genre was partially responsible for my disappointment. YA and I… It just never seems to work 🤣

      As for social justice posturing, there are glimpses in this book how it could’ve been more impactful and more subtle, such as the scene when the main protagonist travels by train and on the border of Tennessee she’s asked to move to an impromptu organized section for colored people. It was really powerful and didn’t need any additional preaching to showcase the inherent absurdity and total unfairness of racism. I guess it’s just this heavy-handedness of going through these themes as if checking points on a PC checklist that bugs me.

      To be honest, I wasn’t even certain whether to go there and start this discussion; on GR I saw many people giving the book low rating but almost no review, as if mentioning that one didn’t like it automatically made one a racist/anti-progressivist etc. But I felt that if I wasn’t comfortable with being honest about such an innocent thing as a work of fiction and personal aesthetics then it’s actually all the more reason to write it.

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  2. Powerful review! Sounds like this was written for teenagers. But the way these books – and their political messages – are praised these days makes me think that many people want to feel like teenagers. They want to go back to a world where good and bad are clear and spelled out, and want to feel empowered via a simple hero’s journey. The obsession with super heroes is the same. And a lot of it is signalling to peer groups, of course. Anyway, I think I am starting to develop a radar for certain books to avoid.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, as I wrote to Zezee, I debated with myself whether to go into this discussion at all – it seems so fraught with various assumptions!

      You are 100% right. This is something I want to research more thoroughly, our changing attitudes toward the meaning of concepts of childhood and adulthood. It is so interesting that so many people seem not to want to grow up. When I recently finished reading a non-fiction about American propensity for conspiracy theories I was struck by the thought that maybe a part of the problem lies within how we structure and approach social constructs such as adulthood and responsibility and choice – especially in our rapidly changing social/technological environment.

      Heh, I’d like to have that radar of yours. It would save me a lot of heartache and time 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Perhaps there used to be a shared idea of what adulthood is, but with increasing individualism and consumerism, people only need to be cogs in the economic machine and nothing else. And everyone going to universities so that more and more people stay students into their late 20s. Family life falling apart, especially in America where young adults move to the other side of the continent and then do their social life via social media, which only increases loneliness… it all sort of adds up. People start building up their lives around hobbies, ideologies… instead of being part of a community. Anyway I am not an expert on these things. I am not really sure how to think about it. There seems to be some kind of hole, that could be filled up with personal growth and emotional hygiene.

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        1. I actually started researching this topic, because I feel that all the things you’re mentioning are actually various symptoms of one complex problem. I feel that the concept of adulthood, even if not exactly at the center of it, is still very near to the core: adulthood is one of those terms that usually don’t need defining and we all have a vague shared idea of what it is. And one of its most important characteristics is taking responsibility and “being in control”. Funnily enough, there’s a lot research about childhood, but not much about adulthood. I’m going to dig deeper 😀

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          1. There used to be rites of passage. But that was when we lived in small communities of hunter-gatherers or nomads. In that situation, as an adult you get a clear sense of your role and responsibilities in the community and in return you are given a certain level of respect. All very clear. In Ancient Rome there was no sense of childhood. Only “small adults” or something. That’s what I’ve heard, somewhere. And now childhood is smeared out for some reason.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. I’m actually reading about this right now; not really “small adults,” actually, but indeed the expectations from children were totally different from what we have now; modern understanding of childhood started out in 17th century, and the educational system added to it. Rites of passage are actually vital for every culture in every age, nowadays the ritual side of it is just more vague and more tailored to individuals, not community, and with less supernatural elements. Birth, death, marriage, but also promotion, work change, etc. are still enveloped in different rituals. The problem is, we’ve lost the “entering into adulthood” rite which was – and is – crucial for smaller pre-modern communities 😉

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  3. Once and Future Witches from her was so good! Yes, there’s also a coming of age story, but it has nearly no YA vibes at all, no teenage angst, no early romance.
    Since then, I have this book on my tbr. And thanks to your review, I removed it, causing an avalanche from Mt TBR. Damnit, it won’t let go 😁

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, you poor intrepid explorer of Mt TBR! Don’t you know that once you discovered it the safest thing to do is to forget it even exists? 🤣🤣🤣

      I only read her fantasy novella Do Not Look Back, My Lion, which was quite nice and definitely less filled with signalling of any kind. Though I actually understand why this book garners so many rave reviews; I mean, compared to many other YA it’s still way more subtle and better written. It’s just that I never was a YA fan and nowadays I actively dislike the genre and avoid it when I can; it’s too simplified, cookie-cut and black-and-white for me. Maybe Once and Future Witches showcases Harrow’s growth as a writer – after all, The Ten Thousand Doors was her debut.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That novella was my favorite for the Hugos. I‘ve read two other short stories by her (Mr Death and The Sycamore and the Sybil) which I enjoyed also.
        There are great YA books (Neverending Story, Momo,…), but they are the needle in the haystack. Can’t take the stink anymore.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yup, my thoughts exactly. There is a few good books from 20th century that had been categorized as MG/YA but are still inherently readable for all ages. The new stuff, though – can’t stand it. That also shows how proper genre categories are still important – had I known it’s YA I’d have given it a pass.

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  4. Sorry this turned out this way. I feel it is inherently dishonest of publishers not to label books as YA that are. I avoid all YA books and feel betrayed and tricked when I start reading a book only to realize it is YA and they hid that fact from me.

    Hope you don’t get crucified on devilreads by the social justice mob for this review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Heh, right? 😉 Good thing I usually post only a part of my review on GR and add a link to the blog post 😅

      Yeah, I’m so tired of YA and I’m still being surprised by it – not in a positive way – because the publishers “forget” to mention this tiny detail in their blurbs and labeling.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, it’s kind of scary. I’ve thought about making a draft post with everyone I follow and checking it every couple of months. I do pay attention to the “number” of people that I follow but WP doesn’t seem to update that very well either.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. *OUCH* 🙂
    This book did indeed receive high praise when it came out and I was tempted to read it thanks to many fellow bloggers’ enthusiastic reviews, but there was that little voice – what I call my “book vibes” – that kept telling me “wait…”, and I’ve learned through experience to always listen to it. Your review confirmed once more that those vibes guide me truly more often than not: like you, I have little patience for YA’s over-used and over-abused tropes, and the fact that they coexist with a good deal of “preaching” makes quite wary about this book. I always enjoy social commentaries in the stories I read, but I like them when they are subtly delivered, not when the authors are trying to bash me on the head with them…
    I guess this is another… averted pitfall, so thank you very much for sharing this!!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, I wish I had such a sixth sense! 🙂 To be fair, though, it wasn’t either the worst of my recent books (that doubtful distinction belongs to this “book” – https://reenchantmentoftheworld.blog/2021/08/02/nicola-west-catch-us-the-foxes-2021/) nor the best (as I re-read Dune recently – my review’s here, if you’re interested 🙂 https://reenchantmentoftheworld.blog/2021/07/13/frank-herbert-dune-1965/)

      But yes, bashing on the head was ample and painful here, as was the total overuse of tropes. Still, there are many people who love this book, so at least part of it lies in personal preferences ;).

      Glad I could be of assistance, Maddalena! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That “bad” book looks indeed like something to avoid at all costs: given the summary, I would not have even considered it. UGH…
        Thanks for directing me to your Dune review: I found it more than intriguing and – better late than never – left a little comment.
        🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I haven’t read this book, and to be honest, I don’t think I would. I have, loke you, read a ton of positive reviews but there was always something keeping me back. I can’t really pinpoint it, but it was there, and now that I have read your review I know that I was right, because it doesn’t really seem the right one for me. But reading your review was interesting and it gave me a clearer idea of the book, so thank you!

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  7. A splendid cover and I’m absolutely not astonished that it got mainly raving reviews. It looks that nowadays most reviewers that I’m coming across are deeply into YA material. I’m since long a strong opponent of the YA label to describe a teenage reading public. But I suppose that labeling those books as teenage literature would hurt the sales.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yup, I think this was the main motivation of the publishers, because it basically ticks all the YA genre boxes: teenage protagonist, emotionality, simplified worldview, first love, coming of age, stereotypical representation of characters and their behavior… You name it.

      Well, I hope I learned something from this experience 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  8. As always, I love your take on books I loved. No, really! I love seeing things I perhaps missed, although you have not changed my mind😉 I don’t believe this was supposed to be YA. Redhook and Orbit are strictly adult fiction. But I can see the YA elements that you mention. Awesome review!

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    1. I’m very happy to read it, Tammy! Your review was one of those that made me pick up this book so I know you love it very much! I didn’t want to spoil the fun for you or other fans, but I also wanted to add my perspective – I’m glad I managed to do it 🙂

      Thank you! 😊

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  9. I wonder how this was actually received by the unnamed target audience? We cough more mature readers have put all that teenage angst behind us, right? but I find that it’s been replaced by a different kind of angst in these latter days, and all the optimism that I allowed to erupt in myself now and then has largely evaporated, reinforced each time I glance at the news.

    So I look for books that don’t reinforce that angst, and perhaps you do too?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The unnamed target audience – and not only, many of adults too – are mostly raving, Chris ;). So it’s as usual yours truly, who’s very picky in her readings 😉
      I am so tired of angst around us – I feel like the definitions and meanings of adulthood and childhood are changing rapidly, or maybe not definitions, but approaches to those concepts: it seems like nobody wants to be an adult anymore, because that would entail responsibility, moderation, balance, knowledge, and realization that we cannot truly do everything we want. This is a topic I want to start researching in depth.

      Yes, I feel so tired by that heightened emotionality, all feelings cranked up to 11, both in reality and in books – I feel it takes away some of our more rational faculties, leaving us all at the mercy of mercurial, easily manipulated moods.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s what I’m afraid of. It’s as if there’s a real checklist for publishers/editors/authors and if something is missing they just write it into their manuscripts because it will sell better. Jeroen had this “recipe for fantasy books” post that covered it in detail. I feel like the root of the problem lies at least partly in the fact that nowadays book writing is treated just the same as report writing in corporations – you don’t have to have anything important to say, you just need to meet deadlines and toe the line.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yep, product. I think especially true for such a niche as (ya) fantasy: it´s so specific that rules/algorithms can be easily applied. Plus most of its readers aren’t reading to encounter genuine artistic expression anyway, but just want escapism and belong to a community (maybe the latter even more so for teenager). What you get is a formulaic genre.

        I do think that has always been the case for the pulp side of speculative fiction. Pulp just got better in disguising itself as serious, by adding superficial identity politics to the mix, adding page count and slick contemporary layout.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hm, interesting point about pulp. I wonder, is it a side effect of common literacy? Though I must admit I encounter similar problems with so called “highbrow” lit; once again, it is more and more a product and not of artistic expression but of capitalist market ;). So once again I’m leaning toward Horkheimer and Adorno’s theses that in our modern world artistic expression too became a type of commodity, with a price tag and a checklist. Maybe I should just resign myself to the notion that originality is in fact very rare and should be cherished and not taken for granted? 😉

          Liked by 1 person

          1. More literacy is definitely a part of it, as are cheaper production methods and more easily available word processing.

            As for highbrow lit: the same applies I guess, but with the distinction that it is always hard to tell what counts serious contemporary literature: for the canon it’s more or less well established as it goes to years and years evaluation in the literary field. I think pulp non-genre, non-speculative literature has always existed too, and again today non-genre, non-speculative literature of the pulp kind manages to disguise itself as highbrow lit too, same mechanism. And as the sorting hasn’t occurred yet, it’s murkier for contemporary readers.

            At the same time, there definitely is also more of a blur, the mixture of genres and of highbrown and lowbrow that was celebrated in postmodernism is a reality, or at least more a reality than it used to be, and a reality that’s also more recognized by gatekeepers, literature departments at unis, etc. Mixtures have obviously always existed, but I do think there are more of them now than in the 18th century.

            I’m not sure if I follow Adorno & Horkheimer. Bach was also payed, Daniel Defoe also sold his novels, and Van Gogh tried too. Art has always been a commodity. What has happened it became more readily available to the masses, whereas it used to be reserved for those with cash: churches, kings, etc. It becoming a mass product obviously changed some of the dynamics, but not in the basic way of being a commodity. We only see older art as something else than a commodity because those work simply aren’t afforable to mere mortals, found their defintive places in a museum, etc. That doesn’t mean they didn’t use to be a commodity.

            As for originality: you are spot on. It is rare and not taken for granted. The problem again is that it looks like it used to be better in the early days, but again, there were countless of painters who painted wheat fields, but it is only those that were original that that survived in the public consciousness (fields of Bruegel, Van Gogh). Obviously not every original painter is still remembered today, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the unoriginals are easier forgotten.

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  10. Oh, you nailed it. Thoughtfully brilliant review. I agree, ‘overwrought’ is an apt description, with young adults and twue wuv following closely behind. I loved the idea as well as Harrow’s short story, but It very much wasn’t the book I wanted to read. I wandered away and haven’t looked back.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Carol! 😀 And welcome!

      I lasted till the end with a vague hope that it would get better; it didn’t. I guess I need to work on my DNFing skills; there are a few book I wish I just abandoned and let them be, optimally somewhere far away from me 😉

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  11. I enjoyed this one more than you did, but I also think I was expecting something different than you were. And I was in the perfect mood for this kind of story when I read it (a mood that doesn’t come around for me often) and content in that space for a certain kind of predictability. But I haven’t felt drawn to her next book, although *shrug* who knows, maybe some time (but there’s a lot of competition for reading time, as you know)! And I agree with those who have commented that the virtue signalling is not necessarily the author’s voice…particularly in the context of American publishing (as you’ve mentioned!). A lot of “guidance” there. Ahem.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I can imagine it’s not an easy market and probably not entirely a debuting author’s fault. That said, I’m tired by that onslaught of “right thinking” in my books, because I feel it changes them into political pamphlets instead of novels, to the detriment of plot and characters. Also, YA. I just can’t stand it 🤣
      Glad you enjoyed this more than I did, though!

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  12. What stuck with me most about this review is your use of “twue wuv” hahahahaha You just seamlessly used it as if it didn’t capitalize how much you despised the core vision of the author in this one. And yes… running into those YA stories without knowing is the worse. I would’ve hated it very much as well. I think I’ll stay away from it for a while now. Fantastic review, Ola! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, yes, you got me there 😀

      My goodness, but I’m so fed up with YA. I never was a fan, except for some 80’s books that would’ve been probably classified as such today, but back when they were created this label was non-existent and books were for the young-at-heart not just some statistical cohort 😉 These days, though, my generalized dislike solidified and I just can’t stand YA, especially when I least expect it 😉

      Thanks, Lashaan! 😀

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