This review contains spoilers.
A 2020 nominee for the Hugo Award for Best Novel, Alix E. Harrow’s debut The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a work that’s distinctively of the moment, part of a wider movement in SFF to reckon with the forces of colonialism and structural racism that are at work in the genre and in the world at large. Set in the early years of the twentieth century, when “the world was tasting the word modern on its tongue”, its protagonist is the titular January, a young brown woman living in the care of a wealthy white man, Mr Locke. Mr Locke employs January’s father to travel the world collecting rare artefacts for the New England Archaeological Society. When, early in the novel, January learns that her father is missing, presumed dead, she escapes from her grief into a book called The Ten Thousand Doors – a book that posits the existence of Doors between worlds and reveals that her own parents met on the other side of one of these Doors. Managing eventually to escape Mr Locke’s control, she goes off in search of of her father – but, unbeknownst to her, the New England Archaeological Society is closing all the doors it can find, potentially cutting her off forever from a family she’s only just learned about.
The link between books and doors that lead to other worlds, and the idea that books themselves act as doorways through which we can escape, is not a new one in fantasy literature: indeed, Erin Morgenstern deals with strikingly similar themes in a novel published the very same year as this one, The Starless Sea. It’s Harrow’s attention to racial power dynamics that marks The Ten Thousand Doors of January out, bringing a freshness and a modernity to the trope that differentiates it from Morgenstern’s effort. Throughout the novel, we’re told that the Doors bring change to the worlds they open onto, as ideas and objects pass through them. Mr Locke and his racist white friends are closing the Doors because they want to hang onto the status quo that gives them and their ilk uncontested power over the rest of the world. It’s a metaphor that’s perhaps more informed by the political situation of today, when increasing civil rights for minorities are being contested by those who fear the erosion of their own cultural dominance, than by the mood of the period Harrow’s writing in, which is as Harrow herself observes throughout the narrative characterised by ideas of progress, of marching forward into modernity. It would be valid, I think, to ask just what that progress means; but Harrow rather sidesteps the question by having Mr Locke act in bad faith. That is, we know by the end of the novel that Mr Locke’s is avowedly against progress; his talk of the march of modernity is essentially a smokescreen concealing his true nature. (As other reviewers, as well as the Bandersnatch, have observed, the reveal of Mr Locke’s true identity as a malevolent and otherworldly being is also disappointing because it undermines what’s been presented up until then as a highly conflicted but possibly still loving relationship with January.) And yet Harrow’s portrayal of Black and brown folks (January is aided in her search for her father by an older Black woman named Jane) triumphing against the forces of oppression by dint of their love for each other is so powerfully hopeful that it’s hard to begrudge her these imperfections.
This optimism is important in a genre that’s historically failed to imagine kind futures for Black and brown people. Like Marie Brennan in her Memoirs of Lady Trent, or Naomi Novik in her Temeraire series, what Harrow is doing here is reinscribing Black and brown folks into a whitewashed historical imagination (how many turn-of-the-century historical adventures do you know of that feature protagonists who aren’t white?), replicating the racist power structures her characters are embedded in without robbing them of agency or hope. Locating January’s ancestry in a literal other world which lacks those power structures is key to that: it identifies turn-of-the-century racism (and, by extension, modern racism) as historically contingent and thus eminently escapable.
I ranked The Ten Thousand Doors of January fifth on my Hugo ballot last year, just above the truly baffling City in the Middle of the Night, simply because the publishers made the decision to include only the first hundred pages of the novel in the voters’ packet. I’m sure that if I’d had the opportunity read the whole thing I’d have ranked it much higher, and I wonder how many other voters could say the same. I’m still not sure it would have beaten out 2020’s winner, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire; but it’s certainly doing some similarly heavy lifting to Martine’s novel when it comes to critically examining colonialism and globalisation, and is a beautifully heartwarming tale to boot.