The Ten Thousand Doors of January (5*)

Book: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow

As you can tell I am continuing to work through my backlog of Hugo Novel finalist reviews. This is something I had the paperback on pre-order for. I had been hoping to read it before the rest of the Hugo packet dropped, but unfortunately the release date got pushed back due to Covid-19, which meant that it came out around the same time instead.

The reason I wanted to read this had a lot to do with her short story, which was my favourite of last year’s Hugo nominations (see my blog about the short stories for more on this) and basically made me want to read more of what she has written. Have to say, I was not remotely disappointed. Her short story made me weep buckets and this novel made me do the same.

“The will to be polite, to maintain civility and normalcy, is fearfully strong. I wonder sometimes how much evil is permitted to run unchecked simply because it would be rude to interrupt it.”

DoorsIt’s a very interestingly structured book, it’s told as someone writing down their own story, but in a very almost stream of consciousness way. The main character is a woman named January Scaller, who tells the tale of her life and also intersperses it with the story contained in a book called The Ten Thousand Doors of January, the story of which is entwined with her own.

I really liked the way that was done, we learn the relevance of one story to the other as the book goes on and I felt that unfolded in a really great way. I did work out what was likely going on before it was revealed, but I think that is probably fairly typical and it doesn’t ruin the impact in the slightest, well it didn’t for me anyway.

One thing I should make clear is that the book is set in the past, in the early days of the 20th century and the main character is mixed race so the book does touch on issues of racism as well as the rather awful practice of “civilising” people from non-white backgrounds so definitely be aware of that if it might cause any issues. It seemed like this was dealt with well to me, but I am also aware that I am a very pasty person so this really isn’t an area I can talk about with any authority.

There is a theme of helplessness in some way, of someone’s power and agency being removed by someone else that gives a very claustraphobic feel to the book in places. I honestly felt like I was struggling to breathe at points as I knew what it felt like to be constrained, to be pushed into acting a certain way in order to be accepted by those around you. My own sense may come from a different place in some ways (though the fact this is something most women do experience is the same), but I strongly empathised with what the character was going through and how it feels to freeze instead of acting in ways people might expect you to act.

“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.”

Overall this is a beautifully written book which takes you on a very personal, very emotional journey. By the end I was in floods of tears and needed to move the book away so I didn’t cry on it. Definitely a deserved Hugo finalist and damn, this is going to be a very hard year to pick a favourite! On the plus side, whatever book wins won’t be too much of a disappointment.

Gideon the Ninth (5*)

Book: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

I have been super psyched about reading this book since I first heard the premise of Lesbian Necromancers in Space, because I mean, why the hell would I not want to read that book? As normal I have trouble with hardbacks and since I prefer to own the physical book I don’t tend to buy ebooks because I don’t really want to buy them twice, so getting an e-copy of this in the Hugo packet was pretty much a dream come true.

Before I get into it I do want to say that I was expecting a book that was a lot of fun at heart and maybe didn’t entirely take itself too seriously. It turned out to be so much better than that and I loved every bit of it. Waiting for the sequel is going to be a trial, let me tell you!

“Nonagesimus,” she said slowly, “the only job I’d do for you would be if you wanted someone to hold the sword as you fell on it. The only job I’d do for you would be if you wanted your ass kicked so hard, the Locked Tomb opened and a parade came out to sing, ‘Lo! A destructed ass.’ The only job I’d do would be if you wanted me to spot you while you backflipped off the top tier into Drearburh.” “That’s three jobs,” said Harrowhark.”

GideonThe book follows the main character of Gideon, a foul-mouthed lesbian who has had a less than excellent childhood and who only wants to get out of the personal hell she is living in and maybe get to romance or sleep with some hot woman along the way.

She is “persuaded” to come along with Harrowhark, the necromancer who rules the Ninth, as they head to another world for testing to become one of the Emperor’s chosen, which Harrow is determined to succeed at.

This turns into something of a murder mystery when certain of the other participants wind up dead and then there is a rush to discover if some dangerous creature is loose on the planet, or if one of the others is killing off their competition.

Gideon’s voice comes across very strongly in the book, she’s an easy character to love and honestly the more we find out about her the better it gets. She’s something of a secret sweetie, caring a lot more about other people than we might guess from her initial introduction into the story.

In fact Tamsyn Muir does an excellent line in slowly unravelling the layers of people’s characters so you get to know them a lot better as the story progresses and some of what you learn is really quite surprising. As the book is something of a murder mystery please be aware that characters you like may end up dead by the end, it’s pretty brutal in that regard.

“She had left Harrowhark a note on her vastly underused pillow— WHATS WITH THE SKULLS? and received only a terse— Ambiance.”

The setting is also really fascinating, especially as for the most part it seems like it would perhaps belong more in a fantasy book than in a science-fiction one, but the setting most definitely has elements of both. The magic is all necromancy based, but does appear to be treated almost as a science, whilst you do seem to have to have some innate talent to be a necromancer, study and understanding of the principles involved is a very important part of getting to be good at it.

It doesn’t feel vastly sci-fi, probably because the story is more of a weird mystery than anything else, but I get the feeling, given how the book ends, that the space part of the setting is going to be much more important in the future.

But yes, basically this book has a beautiful tongue-in-cheek humour (see the quotes for good examples) balanced with some excellent character work that really draws you into the story and has you rooting for people. I definitely wanted to know how things worked out and some of the surprises in it caught me entirely flat-footed. It’s well written, funny and very moving. Wish I had been able to read it sooner but better late than never I suppose!

The City in the Middle of the Night (4*)

Book: The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

Right, so I have been bad at catching up with these again, this whole pandemic is not doing wonders for my mental health I will admit. I am most of the way through all the reading I have been doing for the Hugos so I have a lot of posts to catch up on!

“Part of how they make you obey is by making obedience seem peaceful, while resistance is violence. But really, either choice is about violence, one way or another.”

CitySo first up (since I already did A Memory Called Empire) is The City in the Middle of the Night. This was something I had already bought for myself and hadn’t gotten around to reading yet. We also did it for my book club recently so I got to combine my reading in a really efficient way!

I will admit that I wasn’t a big fan of her first book, All the Birds in the Sky, just not quite my thing (though I know loads of people who loved it). The premise for this one really caught my eye though and listening to her talk about it on her podcast (Our Opinions Are Correct) got me really interested so I thought I would give it a go and I am honestly really glad I did because I very much enjoyed it.

The book follows two different protagonists whose lives get tangled up together in the course of the book. The world that the book is set on is one that is stuck with one half in the light of the sun and the other half in darkness, so the only habitable area is the twilight region between day and night. Sophie is a young woman from the poorer side of Xiosphant is a student and a revolutionary. She ends up exiled into the darkness and is saved from it, an event that will change the course of her life and potentially the planet. The other woman is Mouth, a traveller seeking to preserve the memory of her lost people. The two of them will get caught up in the troubles of the world and will have to find a way to work together to get through it.

“You might mistake understanding for forgiveness, but if you did, then the unforgiven wrong would catch you off guard, like a cramp, just as you reached for generosity.”

As I mentioned before the setting of this book really got my attention, the idea of a civilisation perched in twilight, caught forever between a day and a night that would kill them was something I find fascinating, especially in regards to what a society would look like in those sorts of conditions. There’s an interesting contrast between Xiosphant, a city that is built on order, on using shutters to make a fake day and night to give the residents the sense of routine that they had on Earth, whilst the other city is relaxed, more chaotic as the residents have much more freedom to do what they want.

One of the main focuses of the book is also on the relationships between the characters, which is always a favourite thing for me. Though a warning, there is a very toxic relationship portrayed in it that could be pretty triggering if you have been through something like that. It is very, very well done and I often found myself screaming at the character in the book, not because I blamed them for their choices, but because I desperately wanted better for them and it was painful to watch them go through it all. Which I mean, is excellent characterisation, the whole thing wouldn’t have upset me as much had I not cared about the characters and if the depiction hadn’t been quite so realistic, so masterfully done on the author’s part.

The ending is a little open in some ways, I don’t want to get into detail because I don’t want to spoiler it for anyone. I think overall I liked the way it ended, it wrapped up enough of the story to feel like some sort of ending, whilst still leaving other things to your imagination, in a way I really did like. The book tells the story it wants to tell and I got really invested in it, it’s not my favourite out of the Hugo novel finalists, but it definitely deserves it’s place there. Well worth a read.