I feel very late to the SFF party with this one. I started this originally back in January (not intentional, it was a long bus journey) and it stuck with me since as a book that has beautiful writing but needs to be savored. How right I was.
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.
But her quiet existence is shattered when she stumbles across 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 reveals more impossible truths about the world, and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.covers a story that might just be the key to unlocking the secrets of her past.
There is very little that I can say about this book that hasn’t been said already. It takes a portal fantasy that is also in itself a discussion about the global effects of colonialism and the true power of words. I’m going to try my damn best here but this may ramble a wee bit. Consider yourself warned.
Portal fantasy has had the best resurgence in recent years. Between the wonderful story of the Wayward Children by Seanan McGuire to the very interesting discussions in Lev Grossman’s Magicians series, I have been rejoicing the new approaches. This one is a little bit more focused on how a families story can stretch across many worlds and how messy and wonderful that can be. We are limited in the worlds that we actually see but we hear of many more that would be nice to visit as readers but it also great to feel the vast amount of doors that are out there.
The setting of the story in the 19th century allows some interrogation of some of the more toxic attitudes of our world. From Mr. Locke’s various comments on January’s hair or how he explains to party goers on her ethnicity to just how we treat each other in general as a whole world is really well done. I also enjoyed the fact this is in a historic setting without being in an actual historic event, which can be a bit wonky at times. The writing is superb and there is no arguing that.
I really loved January. I did. I loved how she is so tenacious and how she never quite stops being curious for the other ways around a situation even when the odds are stacked against her. She is also incredibly realistic in how she grows as she tells her story. There are so many feelings in her and even when Mr. Locke truly tries to bleach the very colour from her soul and in a way that we do get to look back on later on in the book, he can’t quite capture the last spark of her. I loved her little support crew of Jane and Bad (her wonderful dog, short for Sinbad) and how together they make the biggest, strongest group of outcasts you could ask for. Both can possibly bite you too.
This is a book for readers and a story about stories. How stories can keep us alive, how writing a single line can save a life and how without them we aren’t really human. So I think with that, it’s worth pointing out how Alix. E Harrow writes a very perfect story here. The pacing, the plot and the fact that this is a fantasy that manages to standalone in such an exquisite way is a refreshing experience. Any kind of standalone SFF book has a lot that can go wrong or a lot that can drop but this is the book that is both an example of why we need more of them but is also a perfect book for anyone who needs an escape. A door if you will.
Thanks for reading guys, hope you are all safe and well. Do let me know if you have read this so we can discuss. Happy reading!