Redhook, 2019, 374 pages
In the early 1900s, a young woman searches for her place in the world and the mystery behind a magical door in this captivating 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.
I know I'm going to sound like a Sad Puppy or something here. But I'm quite fine with protagonists who aren't white men, stories that examine power and prejudice and identity politics, and even address (gasp!) social justice issues.
And this book was good, inasmuch as it had a moving plot, strong characterization, and engaging prose. On its technical merits, this book hits all the right notes.
Alix Harrow's debut novel is a finalist for the 2020 Hugos, and (sigh) very typical of the post-Puppy Hugo scene. Which is to say, the finalists are carefully curated to be finely crafted novels that emphasize relationships and the inner lives of female protagonists, and absolutely not anything that would appeal to the rabid trolls who tried to take down the Hugos a few years ago. Grotty old neckbeards who like space operas and alpha males, fuck off, is the message.
Unfortunately for me, the tastes of those rabid trolls happen to intersect to no small degree with my own tastes: I like adventure, heroism, action, judicious levels of violence, romance in which both sexes are allowed to have desires and emotions, some detailed worldbuilding, alienness, exotica, and, ya know, space operas are cool, and alpha males get shit done. (And there are plenty of alpha females around too.) The Ten Thousand Doors of January is only superficially a fantasy novel; it's mostly a girl's coming-of-age with classism, racism, and imperialism novel.
Our eponymous protagonist, January Scaller, is a young girl born in the early 20th century who discovers her parents had the ability to travel through doorways to other worlds, and she has the same ability. So she travels through doorways to other worlds, meets some slightly interesting people, and is chased by a bunch of rich white men who are terrible in various predictable ways. The end.
Right. There's actually a bit more to the plot than that. January is racially mixed, of indeterminate origin, but in early 1900s America, she gets clocked as "colored." She is protected from most of the indignities of this by being the ward of her father's wealthy patron, Mr. Locke, who has raised January almost as his own daughter, while her father travels around the world collecting exotic artifacts for Mr. Locke. Her mother disappeared shortly after she was born, and January grows up longing for her father's presence and Mr. Locke's approval, vaguely aware that she's not white and that this is significant to anyone outside Mr. Locke's radius, but still fairly privileged. Until her father disappears, and January, in a rage, rejects Mr. Locke and the approval of his high society friends. Her sudden revelation that she's just another curious specimen Locke has collected comes along with many other revelations, like the fact that there are doors to other worlds, and she, writing in blood, can access them. So she escapes from the madhouse to which Locke confines her, and eventually, uncovers the true story of her parentage, while finding companions in Jane, the African warrior woman her father sent as a protector, and Samuel Zappia, the Italian grocer's son who's had a crush on her since they were children.
All of this has the makings of a grand adventure novel, but even the fantastic bits (like the secret society for which the New England Archeological Society is a front, and the vampires) are all basically just allegories representing privilege and colonialism and shit. The worlds to which January travels are just alternate geographies where people of different skin colors live in peaceful communities unplagued by wypipo; are there fantastic creatures, unearthly empires, strange magics and technology to discover? Not really. There's a kind of "magic" in some of the worlds, the kind that January uses to open doors, where knowledgeable folks can use words of power to make non-dramatic things happen. But it's basically January tripping through worlds, on the run, making friends, and looking for her parents.
Basically, for a book with so much story, not that much happens.
Now, I am probably being uncharitable in suspecting a purposefulness in the way in which all the sympathetic characters are WOC, and all the villains are white men, but it really did start to feel like Harrow wanted to make sure no one would accuse her of accidentally saying anything positive about "whiteness." January's mother (a white woman) is mostly absent from the story, but she doesn't get dinged for privilege because she's from a lower-class, impoverished family of women whose husbands all died and were also all abusive lowlife scrubs whom their wives were better off without. January's love interest, Samuel, is kinda white (enough that he can sort of pass when it's convenient for the story) but it's also emphasized that he's a dark-skinned immigrant and not really perceived as "white" by white society.
With (I think) a single exception - a minor character who dies after one scene - there isn't a single white man in the book who isn't a privileged asshole if not an outright monster.
I get it, I get it. Diversity. New voices in SFF after so many decades dominated by white men. I swear to Octavia Butler, I am not butthurt about white male villains and too many POC protagonists. I read (and enjoy) lots of books with women and POC as the heroes.
But I read this book and appreciated its craft but it felt like something produced by an MFA graduate who carefully vetted her manuscript with a diverse circle of sensitivity readers, and the result is a portal fantasy in which nothing much happens except January's personal growth as she realizes that white men are just the worst. She spends most of the book running away, basically, intersticed with yet another revelation about how awful white male privilege in its various literal and metaphorical manifestations is. And I read all these other reviews swooning and cooing over how wonderful this book is and, like, there's plenty of litfic that does it better, ya know?
But hey, I'm a grotty old neckbeard (well, mostly 'cause of COVID-19; usually I keep my neck pretty clean-shaven), and this is clearly Not For Me. I mean, I liked it well enough. It wasn't a bad book. But it wasn't exciting or novel. It was fine arts and crafts. It was like one of those Oscar-bait films you know will be pretty and well-produced but is carefully calibrated to hit exactly the right sentiments and do nothing brave or different or original. All right, come at me, because clearly I am in a very tiny minority here.
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