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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Book Bingo” where we drew reading challenges commonly found on book bingo cards from a hat and chose a book based on that. For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!
Book: “The Ten Thousand Doors of January” by Alix E. Harrow
Publishing Info: Redhook, September 2019
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Bingo Prompt: A book with a misleading title
Book Description: In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.
Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.
We’re back to a familiar statement from me during a Book Club post and discussion: I am not really a fantasy reader outside of a few specific exceptions, be it titles (“The Lord of the Rings”; “The Neverending Story”) or sub-genres (dark fantasy). So going into my review of “The Ten Thousand Doors of January”, you need to take all of this with a grain of salt. Maybe a teaspoon or two. I am almost never going to be able to vet a fantasy title super well because as a genre it’s not my bag, baby (a phrase that was tossed around in book club during the discussion).
What I will say about this book that I did like was the way that Harrow incorporated social issues of the time period into the book. We see the struggles of life in Edwardian-era England for not only women, but also women of color within a certain social stature. While January is somewhat shielded from some of this because of her placement with Locke, she is still kept in a gilded cage, and eventually put in an asylum under guise of hysteria when in actuality she is more inconvenient for Locke and his contemporaries when she becomes a perceived threat. And then once she is more outside of Locke’s ‘protection’ (you can’t REALLY call it that), her race is suddenly something she also has to contend with in a more direct and overt fashion. I also liked the way that Harrow addresses aspects of Imperialism and Colonialism through the character of Jane, a woman born in Africa who was being subjected to a missionary school, and eventually finds a door that helps her find freedom. And really, her door, where she encounters a world with a matriarchal cheetah society, was SUPER interesting! But we didn’t really get to see much of that. We didn’t get to see as many doors as I anticipated.
So yeah, I liked the social aspects of this book, as it’s great to see fantasy address these themes. But it’s still fantasy, which just isn’t my genre. So this is very much a ‘your mileage may vary’ situation.
Don’t worry fantasy lovers! As the resident fantasy reader, I am happy to step up to vet titles in this genre. And, all told, I found a lot to like in this book. This is definitely one of those fantasy novels that leans heavily on subgenres like historical and literary fiction. While there is definite magic involved in the story and it is surely a portal fantasy, the pacing and overall feel of the book falls more in line with literary fantasy and historical fiction than anything else. As Kate mentioned, the book focuses a lot on the realities of life in this time period for both women and people of color. Even though there are fantastical doorways into different worlds, there is no magic wand to wave away the very real challenges facing many during this time.
The pacing of this book is also on the slower side, spending much more time developing the overall feel of the story and the realities that January is facing. But to balance this slower pace, the story is broken up into two primary stories: one that of January herself, and the second following another young woman born a few decades before January who also found doorways and used them to redirect the pathway laid before her. I really enjoyed the way these two stories came together. I was also surprised by a few twists and turns that were given a long the way. For all the dire circumstances and reality that makes up so much of January’s life, the story includes a hefty dose of hope right when things could begin to feel a bit too bleak.
Overall, I really liked this book. It’s definitely on the slower side and errs towards the lyrical over the action-packed. Like some book club members pointed out, for a book about a thousand doorways between worlds, the story spends most of its time in our old familiar world. But I think that worked for the balance that was being struck between fantasy story and a larger reflection on this period of history and its people.
Kate’s Review 6: It’s fantasy. I liked some of the social themes presented and the small tastes of some of the worlds. But it’s just not my genre.
Serena’s Review 8: A lyrical fantasy novel that makes up for its slower pacing with its lovely character work.
Book Club Questions
- What were your thoughts on January as a protagonist of this book? Did you connect with her as a main character?
- Did you find it to be a nice change of pace when the book would transition to the Adelaide story arc?
- Which side characters did you find the most compelling in this story? Were there any side worlds through the doors you liked reading about?
- What were your thoughts on how this book tackled and addressed various social aspects like imperialism, racism, and sexism?
- Were there any moments that stood out in particular in this novel?
- Who would you recommend this book to?
Next Book Club Book: “Old Man’s War” by John Scalzi