Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

‘Words and their meanings have weight in the world of matter, shaping and reshaping realities through a most ancient alchemy.’

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!

★★★★★/5

The Tea Master and the Detective- Aliette de Bodard

When you’re out there, with no one and nothing to stand in your way – when you realise how small you are – you also realise that everything that ever was, that ever will be, is connected to you. That we’re all, in the end, part of the same great thing.’

I read this for the 2019 Hugo’s as I am attending the World Sci fi convention in Dublin this year (Dublin 2019) and it did not disappoint. This story was a great merging of some of my favourite tropes and genre’s of story while packing a punch for something so short. So this is gonna be a mini-ish review.

Welcome to the Scattered Pearls belt! A ‘provincial backwater’ in the depths of space where humans and AI/mindships mingle and mix among each other. It is here we meet The Shadow’s Child, a discharged mindship who is suffering from the trauma of a battle. The Shadow’s Child makes her living from blending teas (YES) that function as drugs and remedies for people trying to survive deep space travel. When Long Chau walks in and introduces herself as a consulting detective looking to hire The Shadow’s Child to recover a body from deep space, we slowly unravel a detective story and a study of PTSD in space.

This is my first time reading any of Aliette de Bodard’s work and especially anything set in her Xuya universe and I really enjoyed it. I like shorter novellas but I sometimes feel that especially when they are sci fi that they can be short to the point it get bogged down with world building/character perspectives. This was had none of that. The world building is very straightforward and is essentially just a description of Space but with Vietnamese inspired notes. That’s it. Nice and simple.

The characters really stood out for me. I have not read ANY books from an AI perspective and I found this story did it really well. The Shadow’s Child is such a wonderful and refreshing character, de Bodard imbues this mindship with so much emotion and such humanity. She is a ship that is recovering from a violent event and she can’t go back into deep space as a result and she struggles to make rent and survive which is such a basic human need we would obviously not assign them to a synthetic sentient being like a mindship. It really made the story worth it for me. Long Chau wasn’t as well developed and I felt she suffered for it as a character for it but it is a shorter work. She has very Sherlockian traits including a drug addiction but she is a good foil for The Shadow’s Child. She was entertaining and fun to read.

I love detective stories. I spent a good chunk of my teenage years watching Sherlock, watching many Sherlock Holmes movies and reading the actual stories so this was like a love letter to one of my favourite tropes. I will say however that sometimes it felt too Conan Doyle-esque? So if you don’t like retellings it may not be for you. It’s still a highly original story regardless but it may not suit Sherlock Holmes purists.

To conclude, this was a perfect entry to the Xuya world and I can’t wait to read more. I did check to see would these 2 characters feature again in other Xuya stories but de Bodard has said they probably will not. I will read more of her stuff and this actually has me stumped for what my choice for the novella category for the Hugo awards.

★★★★/5