Why You Need to Read: “The Ten Thousand Doors of January”

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

By: Alix E. Harrow

Published: September 10, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Coming-of-Age

            I almost didn’t notice the Door at all. All Doors are like that, half-shadowed and sideways until someone looks at them in just the right way, (1, The Blue Door). 

            Portal fantasies are one of the many subgenres in fantasy fiction, going back to the emergence of the genre. Popular portal fantasies include: C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and—more recently—the Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire and Shades of Magic by V.E. Schwab. Academic scholar Farah Mendlesohn defines portal fantasy as, “a fantastic world entered through a portal,” (xix). Note how the definition does NOT state that it has to be “our” world. Alix E. Harrow, author of The Ten Thousand Doors of January and recent Hugo Award recipient for Best Short Story—“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies”—reminds readers that portal fantasies can lead from one world to our world (planet: Earth, galaxy: Milky Way).  

            January Scaller is our protagonist. She tells her story of growing up in Vermont at the start of the twentieth century. January is the ward of Mr. William Cornelius Locke, a billionaire and an archaeologist. Her mother is deceased and her father, Julian Scaller, is a scholar who is employed by Mr. Locke to search for and to collect artifacts for him. Throughout her childhood, she’s kept under Mr. Locke’s watchful eye with only her childhood friend, Samuel Zappia; her father’s appointed guardian for her, Jane Irimu; and, her dog, Sindbad. January doesn’t know much of what is happening around her, until the day before her 17th birthday when she finds a leather-bound book titled: The Ten Thousand Doors. That book introduces January (and readers) to Adelaide Lee Larson—a woman born during the Reconstruction Era—and, to Yule Ian Scholar—a man from the City of Nin in the year 6908, who is the author of the book January finds—and their encounters with Doors and each other. Both Adelaide and Yule Ian have different experiences surrounding Doors, and January—who shares the same curiosity as them—learns more about these other worlds through them. However, this book reveals the truth of her father’s “work” as well as Mr. Locke’s “intentions” for her. From there, January discovers and uses this information to break away from her guardians and to repair the damage that’s been stricken to her loved ones. January’s coming-of-age story stands out more than other ones I’ve read recently; and, I couldn’t stop learning along with her. 

            The plot in the novel surrounds January Scaller’s unique upbringing. Because her father travels around the world while working for Mr. Locke, January was always left behind. And yet, January had tutors and would travel to places around the world with Mr. Locke; not to mention, Mr. Locke disapproved of January’s companions. It’s as if Mr. Locke is afraid to have January out of his sight. Throughout her childhood, January is Mr. Locke’s “good girl,” but longs for her father’s affections. This comes to an end when 3 events happen around and on January’s 17th birthday: her father disappears, she finds The Ten Thousand Doors, and she learns of Mr. Locke’s plans for her life. From there, January must find a way to escape her guardians and discover the truth surrounding Doors and her father’s connection to them. There are 2 subplots in this novel. First, is the story of Adelaide and Yule Ian and their discoveries about Doors and other worlds. Second, is the way January, Samuel, and Jane survive in a society that is dominated by wealthy, Caucasian males who do all they can to control other people. The subplots are intertwined with the plot, and everything comes together, slowly; yet, the pace of the development fits the story the author is telling. 

            The narrative in The Ten Thousand Doors of January consist of 3 different points-of-view: January Scaller, Adelaide Lee Larson, and Yule Ian Scholar. The entire novel—except for the Epilogue—is told in flashback. January’s narrative is told in the past tense in stream-of-consciousness, Adelaide’s narrative is written as a biography, and Yule Ian’s narrative is written as a journal. The sequence of these narratives takes some getting used to but, readers will be able to follow along after the first few chapters. Readers are led to believe that all of the narrators are reliable because the story is told from their P.O.V.s. 

            The way Alix E. Harrow tells her story is a combination of “tradition” with allusion alongside history. In the “tradition” of portal fantasy, “‘the journey’ serves to divorce the protagonists from the world,” (Mendlesohn 7). In other words, the protagonist must separate themselves from their “home” world and travel to another world. In this novel, several worlds are mentioned and traveled to, but there is a strong hint (the title) that there are a lot more. In terms of allusion, the names January and Sindbad, Locke and Scholar are not given by accident. These names serve as epithets to the story being told. The mood is oppression and the tone is escapism. In the midst of the novel is the setting. January turns 17 in 1911. During this time, racism, sexism, and imperialism were practiced throughout the world. January, Julian, Samuel, and Jane are victims of these societal practices. The author uses our history to explain why some individuals would desire either to leave, or to travel to our world. If someone who was suffering under the societal hierarchy was given a chance to live elsewhere, then who is to say that they shouldn’t take the opportunity? The author wants readers to question the existence of other worlds. 

            This novel will appeal to fans of fantasy, especially portal fantasies. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a reminder that adults can travel to other worlds as well as children. This is a standalone novel, so there is a chance that it could fall behind in the popularity of similar books that are in a series. Yet, because this novel explains the concept of other worlds in existence (not just one), I believe this novel will be read and enjoyed by many readers. Plus, the author just won a Hugo, so I doubt this book will ever fade from popularity. 

            The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a beautiful debut novel about other worlds, love, and sacrifice. It does take a while for the story to pick up, but once it does, readers will learn about other and new worlds that never crossed their minds. The protagonist grows from a suppressed and isolated individual to a world trotter makes for a believable, yet traumatic, bildungsroman story. Alix E. Harrow is an author with more worlds to present to readers, and I can’t wait to learn about all ten thousand of them!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5)!

This is because Alix E. Harrow said I had “neat” handwriting.

                                                            List of Works Cited

Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Middletown, CT, Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

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Why You Need to Read: “A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World”

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World

By: C.A. Fletcher

Published: April 23, 2019

Genre: Science Fiction, Coming of Age, Post-Apocalypse, Dystopian 

            “I wasn’t going home Not then, not yet, or not to my home anyway. I was going to go to his home. I was going to get my dog. I was going to take his boat. And then, when and only if I did that, I would go home,”(Chapter 13, “The tower”).

            The world has ended. However, this post-apocalyptic story does not occur as the world is ending, or immediately after the world ends. Instead, the story follows the descendants of those survivors; these people are living in what remains of the world 100 years later. And yes, the novel is about a boy who goes on a journey to recover his stolen dog. Before you judge the plot of this book, recall the plot of the movie, John Wick.

            Griz is the protagonist and we follow the events of his adventure afterthey happen. Griz lives with his family—parents and brother and sisters—on an island. There are other people who live in this big world, including their neighbors with whom both families make supply runs together. As mentioned in the summary, a thief—named Brand—“stops by the island” and takes one of the family’s dogs. Griz, who believes in family and doing the right thing, takes off after Brand in order to get the dog back. Throughout Griz’s journey, he explores what remains of our world: buildings, wildlife, landscape, etc. Griz learns more about the world because he must survive alone with his knowledge and his instincts to guide him. The few people Griz meets throughout his journey presents both the struggle and the complications surrounding each individual, including Griz. 

            The plot is straightforward. Griz leaves home to chase a thief who stole from his family and took his dog. I would not call this a “hero’s journey” plot; but, instead an adolescent leaves home, learns about the world, and returns a changed person. The plot is coming-of-age; and, the subplot is survival, the man versus nature conflict. It is mentioned throughout the novel that so much time has passed and there are so few people left—according to Griz, approximately 7,000—that a lot of the previous knowledge has been lost and abandoned. Computers and vehicles are no longer operating, medical services have been reduced to herbs and remedies—an injury or an illness can lead to one’s death—and, maps are as useless to someone who doesn’t know where they are compared to someone who is able to travel to those places. The apocalypse not only reduced the human population, but also reduced all helpful knowledge for humanity to thrive. These factors let readers know that Griz’s journey is more complicated than we first believe it to be. 

            The narrative is told from Griz’s point-of-view after the events occurred. Griz is recounting the events of his life and his journey in a blank journal he found during one of his family’s scavenging trips. With limited ways to keep oneself occupied, writing in a journal is a good idea. This narrative could be said to be reliable because the times in which, Griz does catch up with the thief, he doesn’t allow his judgment to cloud over with what the thief tells him about himself and the world. The fact that Griz includes what the thief has to say makes this story more believable because the need to survive is highlighted in this narrative. In addition, Griz mentions parts of the story he decided to omit because it was “irrelevant” to his story. Not only does this make the narrative easier to follow, but also gives the narrative a bit of realism in that not every detail has to be included within a given story. 

            The style the author, C.A. Fletcher, uses makes for a believable “what is” scenario without the mention of zombies. What happens to the world and its survivors years after the world ends? In this case, the world continues as it was, but with limited interference from the actions of humanity. What’s left of any buildings are either safe, or decrepit; all animals roam without fearing humans because there are so few left; and, plants and vegetation thrive where they are with only the elements to concern them. Fletcher’s mood for his story is that the world goes on with or without humans. However, the tone reiterates the darker side of humanity. Yes, Griz and his family were gullible enough to allow a thief into their home, but the thief tells Griz more than once that he is not a “bad guy.” And, the thief is right, to an extent. With so few people and limited resources, there are some people who would resort to darker methods for survival. There are no laws to restrict anyone, anyone could get away with doing just about anything—theft, kidnapping, murder, etc.—and, not worry about consequences or law enforcement. Fletcher gives readers a two-sided notion of a post-apocalyptic world with this style of writing. 

            Anyone who is a fan of post-apocalyptic stories will enjoy Fletcher’s novel. As I mentioned before, there are no zombies or first wave attacks in this story; and, this does not happen immediately after the events at the end of the world. And, that’s the appeal of A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, the aftermath of the apocalypse! Given the approximate age of Griz (16?), adolescent readers will find this novel appealing as well. I can see this novel becoming an assigned book in schools.

            A Boy and His Dog at the End of the Worldis an entertaining dystopian bildungsroman novel that puts a lot of emphasis on the atmosphere of the Earth over the characters. Readers learn from Griz’s experiences that both knowledge of survival and knowledge of people go hand-in-hand. My only issue with this novel is that while Griz learned and accomplished much on his journey, he doesn’t seem changed by it that much. It could be because Griz is telling the story in his journal. The “story doesn’t end with the journey” notion that left me wondering whether or not Griz and his family has more to tell us about their world. Other than that this novel was fun to read. 

My rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5).

Why You Need to Read: “Binti: The Complete Trilogy”

Binti: The Complete Trilogy                                                      

By: Nnedi Okorafor

Published:  Binti(#1) released September 22, 2015

                 Binti: Sacred Fire(#1.5) released February 5, 2019

                 Binti: Home(#2) released January 31, 2017

                Binti: The Night Masquerade(#3) released January 16, 2018

                Binti: The Complete Trilogyreleased February 5, 2019

Genre: Science Fiction, Afrofuturism, Anthology  

Winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novella 2015 & the Hugo Award for Best Novella 2016

PLEASE NOTE: The following contains minor spoilers for all four novellas. You have been warned.

I am Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka of Namib (Binti).

            Every once in a while you hear about a story that is so unique and so captivating that it is suggested that everyone should read it regardless if it’s not from their preferred genre of literature. Bintiis a story about a young woman who leaves her home—without her family’s blessing—so that she can take advantage of an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend the most prestigious university in the galaxy, Oomza Uni. She boards a spacecraft and it is traveling to a distant planet, and Binti has never been away from her home before. It seems like the story will pick up pace once the spacecraft arrives; only it is attacked by a “hostile” alien species. This is the first part of the first novella in the series by Nnedi Okorafor—which, won both the Nebula and the Hugo awards for “Best Novella”—and, neither the action, nor the story ends with the first novella! Binti: The Complete Trilogycontains all of the author’s stories in one volume!

            Bintistarts off with a simple plot: a gifted young woman goes against her family’s expectations in order to attend an esteemed university. Readers are introduced to Binti’s intelligence for mathematics, abilities as a harmonizer, and Himba culture. At the same time, readers are reminded that human differences and alien versus human culture clashes exist in the future as well. One particular rivalry between the species quickly becomes the center of the story, quickly. Binti has to find a way to survive her new—and unexpected—predicament, which will be hard because the Meduse, the hostile alien species want her dead. 

            Binti is terrified to the point where it’s easier to blame herself for her current situation rather than realize how sheltered she was back on Earth. Binti soon realizes that she must rely on her abilities and her talent in order to understand the situation and escape with her life. However, Binti is not in control of either her abilities, or the tools she has with her. This means improvising. She soon realizes that her astrolabe allows her to communicate with the Meduse on the spacecraft. Binti is able to come up with a strategy to save herself, the lives at Oomza Uni, and the lives of the people on Earth, including her family. Even though she succeeds, the experience of Binti’s excursion to Oomza Uni changes her in more ways than one.

            Binti: Sacred Fireis the latest story written by the author in this series, but it serves as an interlude between the first and the second books in the series. This tale provides an appropriate look into Binti’s life as a student at the university she saved. She has become friends with one of the Meduse, Okwu, who is now a student at the university as well. Readers gain insight into Binti’s interactions with her classmates and her professors, and her family and friends back home (the ones who are willing to talk to her). 

            Unfortunately, Binti’s new life at Oomza Uni is not as smooth as she hopes. She is suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder from her voyage to the university and from the bullying from a few of the humans who happen to be from a feuding tribe from Earth. Although Binti is hailed as a hero for negotiating a truce, she feels as isolated at Oomza Uni as she did back home. Not to mention, Binti is still dealing with some personal “changes” to her being. 

            Even though Binti is traumatized and isolated, she is not alone. Her friends are with her as she works her way through her adjustments and her traumas. Binti knows that it’ll take a while to get used to her new lifestyle, but it seems like she’ll be getting the full university experience. 

            Binti: Homeis about what is in the title. Binti completes her first semester or year at Oomza Uni and decides to return home to visit her family and to participate in her tribe’s pilgrimage. Binti has made progress at the university: in her classes, in her therapy sessions, and in her reputation as a Master Harmonizer. However, returning home means traveling by spacecraft, and it’s the same one Binti traveled on to get to Oomza Uni.

            The spacecraft—known as The Third Fish—is a living thing that flies in outer space. Binti—who is still suffering from PTSD—decides to stay in the same room she stayed in during her first voyage in order to face her trauma. Throughout the voyage, Binti is able to make some progress of dealing with her panic attacks and flashbacks. However, Binti still has to face her fear of reuniting with her family. And, since she’s lived away from her home for a while, she’s forgotten some of her people’s more casual customs. Binti has changed in more ways than one because of her experiences. Unfortunately, her family and her tribe are static in their ways and are disgusted with Binti’s changes and growth. 

            The purpose of a pilgrimage is for an individual to seek growth through moral and spiritual growth. Oftentimes, that individual becomes enlightened and transformed by the end of their pilgrimage. This is what happens to Binti during her pilgrimage even if it isn’t the pilgrimage she was supposed to go on. The pilgrimage Binti goes on brings her to a new level of personal enlightenment. And, she is made aware of her own prejudices and slowly comes around to accepting the changes she’s been experiencing. At the same time, the prejudices surrounding three different clans have erupted, and Binti—once again—must rely on her skills as a harmonizer in order to diffuse the tensions before war breaks out. 

            Binti: The Night Masquerade starts where Binti: Homeleft off, with Binti rushing back to her family home after her pilgrimage in order to stop a war before it starts. The Night Masquerade is a personification of the coming of a “big change.” To Binti, she interprets it to mean a war is about to start. And, Binti plans on ending it before it can happen.

            Cultures clash, hidden history is revealed, and someone always gets betrayed. The POVs change so that the readers have a better understanding of what is happening during certain parts of the story. Within the conclusion to this series, readers realize that not everyone is willing to accept change, not everyone wants to interact with someone who is “different” from themselves, and not everyone is willing to admit he/she/it/they have flaws. Binti comes to terms with all of this as she returns to Oomza Uni just in time for the upcoming academic year. All of her experiences and changes within herself allow Binti to elevate herself beyond the status of Master Harmonizer. However, Binti wishes to continue her studies, for the time being. 

            It was thrilling to read Bintiagain. And, Binti: The Complete Trilogyallows readers to enjoy all of the Binti stories in tandem. Fans of Nnedi Okorafor and readers of speculative fiction will appreciate this series compilation as much as I did. Reading through Binti’s life as a university freshman reminded me of some of my experiences during my first year of college as well, including the changes in myself and the stagnancy of everything else. Bintiis a story about personal growth through experience and change, and how expectations depend on individual actions, not those of others. This coming-of-age story is pleasing to all readers and it should not be overlooked. And, readers can rejoice knowing that Nnedi Okorafor has plans to continue Binti’s story!