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.”
It’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.