August 1, 2019

The Ten Thousand Doors of January: A Panoramic Review (Adult)

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

"In the early 1900s, a young woman embarks on a fantastical journey of self-discovery after finding a mysterious book in this captivating and lyrical debut.

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.

Lush and richly imagined, a tale of impossible journeys, unforgettable love, and the enduring power of stories awaits in Alix E. Harrow’s spellbinding debut–step inside and discover its magic." (from Goodreads)

My reaction: For me, The Ten Thousand Doors of January was a book that is objectively quite well-written (especially for a debut), but did not suck me in and make it impossible for me to put it down. On the contrary, I read it in bits and pieces, a little at a time -- which ended up more or less working, as I was able to remember the big picture storyline, and I flipped back to previous sections when needed. For the first three-quarters or so, the book alternates between January's perspective and the story of Adelaide (a story-within-a-story format), and I found it a bit jarring at times to go back and forth between them. 

I liked both January and Adelaide as protagonists, and just generally I thought the characterization here was very well done. The characters were distinctively drawn, and it was nice to see a diverse cast. However, I never totally connected with January or Adelaide, and felt like I was held at a bit of a distance from them. 

The writing style really stood out to me as well. While it tended to the flowery and purple prose-y side of things, and therefore was not that accessible or page-turning in quality, there was something so very quotable about so many of the lines I came across. When I first started reading it, it felt a bit deja-vu-ish, in that it kept reminding me of books from my childhood. Harrow's writing has a quality that is reminiscent of Neil Gaiman's; little pearls of wisdom and reflection are dropped throughout, and phrased in a beautiful and powerful way. 

Best aspect: the concept of the Doors leading to other worlds -- not that this is a fresh concept or anything (hey, it's been done in so many well-known fantasy novels), but I thought the way it was handled here was neat. There are doors to pretty much every kind of world imaginable, and  since stories are basically like doors to other realms, the whole thing is kinda meta. Most readers would be thrilled if they could have January's powers to open Doors! Definitely reader wish fulfillment territory. (However, I should note that most of the book does take place in our world, and that considering the premise, more page time could have been spent actually in some of the other worlds, rather than just hearing stories about them.)

I also really appreciated the touching and thought-provoking themes and ideas Harrow raises throughout the story, including family, loyalty, friendship, abandonment, independence, "otherness," and forgiveness. While the writing is not the most accessible, the themes threaded through this story most certainly are. While there is a touch of romance here, it is not central to the story arc; rather, the story revolves around January's journey to discovering her strength and values. 

If I could change something... as I said, the writing did tend to the overly descriptive, to the point where I was like, "Do you really need another metaphor here?" Metaphors can be used very effectively, but they also need to be used fairly sparingly in order to make the most impact. It's the kind of writing where you feel like a thesaurus may have been employed quite a lot, and unfortunately that can actually make things harder for a reader to visualize, and can impede the flow of reading. So I think that should have been addressed in editing, to ensure that the writing style didn't slow down the momentum of the story. 

I also found the plot very predictable. I think this is probably the weakest aspect of the book -- most of the "reveals" really didn't seem terribly surprising to me (or at least, I had guessed at them by the time January figures them out). Spoilers, highlight to read: I mean, I didn't guess that Yule Ian was her father when he was first introduced, but by the time January finds out that he is, I'd put the pieces together. And I wondered pretty early on if Mr. Locke was the fellow who had bought the land from Adelaide's aunts, and had burned the Door after January opened it.

If you haven't read it: and you enjoy books about self-discovery, friendship, adventure, and wanderlust, pick this one up. 

If you have read it: did you guess the "twists" ahead of time like I did?

Just one more thing I wanted to mention: found the notion that revolution and change occurs because things "leak" through the Doors an interesting one, and I wish it had been explored further. (Maybe in a future companion novel???)

Quote: Hard to pick just one! Here are a few I particularly liked:

That afternoon, sitting in that lonely field beside the Door that didn't lead anywhere, I wanted to write a different kind of story. A true kind of story, something I could crawl into if only I believed it hard enough.

Those of you who are more than casually familiar with books -- those of you who spend your free afternoons in fusty bookshops, who offer furtive, kindly strokes along the spines of familiar titles -- understand that page riffling is an essential element in the process of introducing oneself to a new book. It isn't about reading the words; it's about reading the smell, which wafts from the pages in a cloud of dust and wood pulp. It might smell expensive and well bound, or it might smell of tissue-thin paper and blurred two-colour prints, or of fifty years unread in the home of a tobacco-smoking old man. Books can smell of cheap thrills or painstaking scholarship, or literary weight or unsolved mysteries.

It is fashionable among intellectuals and sophisticates to scoff at true love -- to pretend it is nothing but a sweet fairy tale sold to children and young women, to be taken as seriously as magic wands or glass slippers. I feel nothing but pity for these learned persons, because they would not say such foolish things if they had ever experienced love for themselves.

May she wander but always return home, may all her words be written true, may every door lie open before her.

Final verdict: 4 shooting stars. 

Disclaimer: I received a copy for review from the publisher.


Short & Sweet: An Anonymous Girl and The Wife Between Us

An Anonymous Girl by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

I polished this one off in a day! I was pulled in right from the get-go and then by the end couldn't put it down. A compelling, gripping psychological thriller where you're not sure who to trust and the truth is continually being questioned. I really enjoyed the themes of social psychology and ethics/morality woven throughout. The style of switching between Jessica's and Dr. Shields' perspectives was excellently done; their voices were distinct and Dr. Shields' chapters in particular were written in a clinical, 2nd-person/distant-1st-person that worked really well to convey her unsettling personality. I felt a little mixed about the ending; I thought that one part of it was very fitting in a thematic and storytelling sense, whereas another part kind of took me aback. Spoilers, highlight to read: the fact that Dr. Shields committed suicide by taking Vicodin felt like it made sense from a storytelling perspective. However, I'm not entirely sure how the reader is expected to respond to how Jessica behaves in the last conversation she has with Thomas. She's been the character the reader has been rooting for, so I felt a little upset with having her essentially blackmail Thomas. It certainly drives home the point that no one is 100% "good".

4.5 shooting stars.

The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

Good, but not as gripping or cleverly plotted as the other book I read by this writing duo, An Anonymous Girl. I guessed at one of the big twists early on, and just generally I'd say this one was fairly predictable. Towards the end it does get pretty hard to put down, though! The villain in this one is so despicable that it is very easy to root for another character (being deliberately vague here so as not to spoil, lol). And there was a reveal right at the end that I didn't see coming! Also, a very weird relationship dynamic that is hinted at but not fully explained left me still with questions... Spoilers, highlight to read: what was up with Maureen? What kind of twisted brother-sister relationship do they have? Creeeeeeeepy...

3.5 shooting stars.

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