What is a story, really? Is it just words, or is it a door to another world? In the second week of our Hugo series, we’re looking at The Ten Thousand Doors of January, a book that is very interested in those questions. We explore this turn-of-the-century historical-fantasy coming-of-age novel and find the answers. Are those answers satisfactory? You’ll have to listen and find out.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Anonymous. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts OrenAshkenazi, West Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Opening Song]
Wes: Hello and welcome to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host, Wes. And with me today is
Wes: And we are continuing our discussion of Hugo nominees. And today’s pick is Alix E. Harrow’s debut novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, which is [an] historical fantasy coming-of-age tale about a young girl named January and her ten thousand doors, which is a synonym for infinity apparently.
And I want to get it out here right off the bat that I quite like this book, and Oren is going to destroy it and probably my soul.[Laughter]
Oren: I mean, not if Chris gets to it first.[Laughter]
Wes: And I know exactly why I liked this book and why you guys did not. So that’s fine. Let’s get into it.
Chris: Yeah, I was not surprised that you liked this book just by the fact that I did not like this book.
Wes: I would like to know. Did you listen to this one or read this one?
Oren: I listened to this one.
Chris: Listened to it. And I have to say the narrator’s name, the audio narrator, her name is also January.
Wes: Oh, really? What fun coincidence!
Chris: Which was very confusing because we talk about January narrating. It could be the first person narrator, who is January the character. Or it could be the audio narrator. Unless I say otherwise when I talk about the narrator, I am talking about the character, the main character of the book, who is also narrating the story and not the audio voice actor.
Oren: Also, I just want it to be clear that you have to say it ten thousand doors as in ten thousand written out in characters, not numerals. And it’s important. This book would make it very clear that you have to pronounce the numerals and the characters differently. I don’t know how, but I’m sure it would be a thing in this book, and I’m here for it.[Laughter]
Wes: So just a little bit more context on this book. It starts off with us hearing story from the perspective of January Scaller. And it’s clear from the get-go that, unlike the book we talked about last week, this book is a book that someone has actively written down. It’s not unfolding narrative. What have we called it? It’s like a reflection narrative, a re-tell.
Chris: Which doesn’t necessarily mean written down, but it means that the future January is telling the audience the story.
Wes: In this case though, future January is writing this down. These things are being written, which lends itself towards more musings that I just jammed on so hard that I’m certain Oren hated.
Oren: Oh, no.
Wes: This is a book about stories and telling stories. And so there’s lots of stories. It is not a book with a strong overarching plot. It is not a book with devious well-planned out villains. It’s slow. It’s whining. It’s subtle. I think the writing is great. There’s no real tense action. No momentum. I’m getting this all out of the way. Can you tell?[Laughter]
The stakes are not that high because you never really believe that January is in danger. But I will say, and this is why I think it got nominated, that people like this book because they’re in the mood for something that was fantasy enough, but that felt more like hanging out in just a bath instead of like having an intense shower, which is going to be next week’s book for sure. A real hot, scary shower.[Laughter]
Chris: It is true that there is a fairly large audience, I think, that does not like tension to be too high, and it does feel like they are not being properly catered to. And as the result, they tend to like books where the plot is just kind of broken.
Wes: I think it’s interesting here because everything is very neat in how it wraps up. Like a door, it closes perfectly.
Chris: We might have to debate that one with you a little bit, Wes.
Wes: I suppose you could say no reveal is a surprise, and you know what’s going to happen very early before January the narrator does. And for me, that was fine because I enjoyed the way she told the story.
Oren: I have to say, I couldn’t really predict anything that was going to happen because it didn’t feel like anything that happened flowed from any kind of internal consistency or logic, it just seemed to be whatever the author felt like at that exact moment, which made it hard for me to predict anything.
Chris: To provide a little bit of a counter. I do think that the wordcraft in this book was very skillfully done. And I think that’s something that you care about, Wes. That’s probably one of the aspects that really enhanced your enjoyment. And it enhanced my enjoyment to a certain extent too.
However, I have to say. This is probably the first book I’ve ever read where in the first couple of paragraphs, I wanted to punch the narrator.
Wes: That is just fascinating to me because I loved the opening.
Chris: I found the opening so irritating. This is probably one of the big dividing points, just to talk about the personality of this narrator. Let’s just go ahead and get into it.
So, as we mentioned, it’s a first person retelling by January Scaller, who is the main character. It has a lot of meta commentary about stories in it. She’ll stop and be like, “okay, this is how a story normally goes, but this is how it’s actually going to go here because this is not a story.” And sometimes she’ll be like, “hey, you probably think that this is going to happen, but actually this is going to happen.” That kind of meta commentary intrudes in this book quite a lot.
I do think that probably one of the reasons it was nominated for a Hugo is because people who are really into stories are Hugo voters. And they probably like a lot of that meta commentary about stories, and this entire book is designed to be story meta commentary.
We have this whole ten thousand doors, the doors are metaphors for stories. That’s what the whole entire thing is. Personally, I found it incredibly obnoxious. If I never hear another storyteller go on about storytelling in their story ever again, it will be too soon. I just find it very pretentious navel-gazing. If I go in to a cobbler who is repairing my shoe, I want them to repair my shoe. I don’t want them to talk to me about how important and amazing shoe repair is when they’re supposed to be repairing my shoe. Other professions don’t do that to that same extent. Or it reminds me of the Game of Thrones ending that was so bad. It’s like, “Oh, but who has the best story? It’s this random guy. He should be King.”
So I personally find that to be pretty obnoxious, but I can imagine other people liking that meta commentary.
Oren: Based on my studying of the Hugo’s and which books get nominated and which ones win, there is a clear pattern and preference for books that claim they have something to say. Some of them actually do have something to say. Others do not. And whether this book is in the first category or the second, it will depend on your judgment, but it is not surprising at all to me that this one was nominated because it definitely claims to have something to say. I find what it has to say, vapid and uninteresting, but I don’t think that’s actually super important to it being nominated. I think it’s just that the fact that it claims to have something to say is what really helps.
Chris: But it’s clear that that’s what Harrow really cares about in this book, really cares about this idea of this door metaphor for diving into a book, which is, I think, one of the reasons why this format is divided between following January and hearing the book that January is reading. So January is reading a book and we’ll just stop the chapters about January to just have a chapter from this book.
Unfortunately, this book is not actually told in real time scenes. It’s really a lot of exposition dumps. Having a story within a story, Oren has written about this on the blog, it’s already tricky to integrate in properly, and it doesn’t feel like full attention was paid to trying to make that inner story engaging to the same level because it was just told in summary.
Oren: It’s basically just a bunch of info dump chapters to fill in the backstory of January’s parents, the entirety of the purpose of this inner novel. And then in the main story, January then makes commentary on this novel that she’s reading, which is basically nothing but exposition. It’s like, “okay, I guess you can make commentary on that. I don’t see why, but that’s what’s happening now.”
What really gets me in these stories within the stories is when one of the characters says, “wow, that was a really good story.” Kind of rude of you to make that judgment for me. I had to read it too. I’ll be the judge of whether it was good or not. Don’t just tell me it’s good.
Chris: That’s the other thing about this commentary by January. It is constantly making assumptions about what the reader thinks. At the very beginning, we have an encounter with the villain who is January’s guardian. She starts with, “oh, you would think that I would just disobey him, but I couldn’t do it.” And it’s like, no actually that’s not what I think. He’s a really rich guy. You’re at his mercy, and yes, you’ve been really mean to the servants because you’re just kind of a mean child, but it totally follows that you would obey this one guy. Making that assumption about the way that I, as the audience, would react is an irritant.
Sometimes it actually gets insulting. There’s one point later in the book where she says, “Oh, well, some people don’t believe in true love, but those people [who] just don’t know what love is never experienced real love for themselves.” The romance in this book between January’s parents is a pretty lazy romance. It is just a “hey, they saw each other one time. Now they’re in love.” There’s no development. That’s why I don’t like true love as a storyteller is because it feels like we don’t actually have to do the romance or develop the relationship so that the audience can get on board with it. Also, then we also have this requirement almost for these characters to be perfect for each other in every way, which makes it really hard to develop any conflict that needs to happen in the romance.
Oren: And just for some context, this love story is based entirely on these two people who met for a few hours when they were kids and then fell madly in love, and that was the basis of their entire relationship. And then they met again after like…
Chris: 12 years, I think of desperately searching for each other and doing nothing else.
Oren: We’re in perfect love forever. That’s the love story. And the book just tells you that the only reason you don’t like this love story is because science and scholars don’t think it exists. You must be like them if you don’t like it. And in this book, science is like a code name for imperialism. And so it’s literally telling me that if I don’t like the love story, I’m a dirty imperialist.
Wow, that is some chutzpah is what that is. That was amazing that an author had the guts to say that. It’s bad, and you should not say that, but I did have to just stop and pause for a second to be like, it’s not every day that the author just tells me if I don’t like their book, I’m an imperialist.[Laughter]
Chris: The narrator’s personality is very polarizing. I’m sure lots of people loved it. Wes, it seems like you enjoyed it.
Wes: It’s a distinct voice.
Oren: It’s not purple, the way that last book was.
Wes: It’s better on a wordcraft level. I know you guys didn’t like the beginning, but there’s a great passage in here that I wanted to kind of focus on. And in the beginning of this story is when January’s like seven years old and finds this, her first Door, capital D door, in the middle of a field. And I like this description and I wanted to take a look at it because she says, “I found myself in a lonely overgrown field beneath a sky so blue it reminded me of the tiles my father brought back from Persia, a majestic world swallowing blue you could fall into. Tall rust colored grasses rolled beneath it, and a few scattered cedars spiraled up toward it. Something in the shape of the scene, a rich smell of dry cedar in the sun and the grass swaying against the sky, like a tigris in orange and blue, made me want to curl into the dry stems like a fawn waiting for her mother.”
You hear the sibilance in that, the repeated S sounds, really draws out that description. Kind of slows you down in the moment of being in that field. It’s good. It’s very good.
Chris: I think a lot of description is very good, and that’s pretty much what you can expect in a lot of places throughout the book.
Wes: What’s good about that and why it’s not melodramatic is there’s a lot more intent there. S sounds, unlike other consonants, draw things out. And so if you’re describing this field and the immensity of it, you want to try to encourage somebody to maybe linger in that paragraph. Sounds are an interesting way to do that on a diction level. And I thought that was cool and not unique to just the opening. She does that kind of throughout to try to help you linger.
Oren: Also, I knew what those words all meant.[Laughter]
Not to get basic here, but I understood what she was saying, and I didn’t ever have to stop to be like, “Wait, I’m sorry. What does that mean?”
Chris: We knew what impression she’s trying to create when she gives us those comparisons. Not just “aha that’s kind of bizarre” or that feels like it’s unnecessary and doesn’t add anything. Or what I see is a lot of metaphors by writers that just feel completely out of place, like “that’s not the mood you’re trying to create, was it?” It feels like it is designed to create a specific impression, and it succeeds at doing so.
Wes: I’m very curious about this, especially considering last week’s City in the Middle of the Night and next week’s The Light Brigade. January is writing this down. It’s a story in a story. It’s all written. The retelling is that it’s written. And so I wonder if there’s something where authors, who focus on a different type of narrative where it’s unfolding, if the metaphors and the similes are less thought out because in the moment we don’t have the time to put pen to paper and think of a great way to describe something.
Chris: The pace was certainly slowed down. I did notice throughout Ten Thousand Doors that Harrow was okay with slowing the pace down to do these really long descriptions. If you are focused on keeping the tension a little higher and keeping the pacing tight, you may not be willing to write that much description because you don’t want to slow things down that much.
Oren: I actually don’t think this has anything particular to do with the narrative premise because you could make the argument that epistolary, and it technically is. Technically we’re told this is a story that January is writing and then within that story that she has reprinted chapters from a book that she read in the past, but I don’t really feel like it at any point uses that. Like you could take out that conceit and basically nothing about the story would change. You could just as easily tell this in just regular first person retelling.
Chris: I did not know that it was supposed to be epistolary until the very end. And then when it came, I did not believe it.
Oren: The retelling part is really what’s important here. I don’t think the technical epistolary had much of an effect at all. When you are retelling, that does give you a certain license to go on a bit more, if you are willing to slow the story down to do that.
Chris: What January chooses to write does not fit who she supposedly is writing for and why. The reason why epistolary is so tricky is because you’re usually saying this one person is writing with a particular purpose, usually with a particular person as their audience. And to keep it believable, you have to write what they would actually write for that audience. The audience for this is not announced until the very end, which kind of allows Harrow to get away, hoping that people won’t look back and examine. When we find out who this supposedly is supposed to be written for, it just doesn’t fit. It’s not a match. If there were signs that this was supposed to be epistolary earlier, I just totally missed them.
Oren: And the same thing is true of the story within the story. This is technically a novel that January is reading, but it’s not what the author of that novel would have written to accomplish what he was supposedly trying to accomplish.
Chris: The biggest thing about this that really got me, that I just laughed at, was when this story within the story starts. It starts with this super academic paper. Like “I will prove blah, blah, blah.” It’s super boring. And then it just completely veers. It’s like, “or that was what I was intending to write.”
If you were going to write an academic paper, and then you decided you couldn’t write it and you’re writing something else instead, you know you would crumple up what you’d written so far and throw it away and start a new thing. You wouldn’t continue what you are writing. That’s not how people work. That’s not what you do. To me, it felt super contrived.
Wes: I’m glad you said that word because what I like about the entire premise of this book, and they tell you this repeatedly, which you’ll like or you won’t, is that the whole thing is contrived. The whole thing, everything you read in this book is contrived. Why do I like that? Because every story is contrived, and this one is just upfront about it.
Oren: But it also has a number of points where it’s like, “This is happening because this isn’t a story. This is real life. And if this was a story, something else would happen. But because this is real life, it isn’t happening.” It does that several times, and that’s just irritating to me. For one thing, it feels like you’re just throwing shade at every other story. The characters in the story act super contrived at all times, so it just felt weirdly hypocritical.
Chris: Yeah, I have to say that there is quite a number of places, since this is basically meta commentary on stories, where January makes the point that all of these really wild things that you hear in stories are actually real. All of the weird folk tales about weird creatures, they actually come from worlds on the other side of the Door, and they’re actually real and you should totally believe them. But at the same time, [January] calls all of these practices that stories have for the purpose of making them more enjoyable and engaging, unrealistic and cheap. Just on a messaging standpoint, I don’t come away with any particular idea of what Harrow wants to say about stories because there’s this contradiction between, “Oh, this stuff is completely unreal. Real life doesn’t work like that,” and “Oh, but no, all of this really wild stuff in stories, you should totally believe that with all of your heart.” It kind of contradicts itself, but it also feels like everything about in-stories is true, except for the parts that actually makes for good storytelling and those things we can’t have. A lot of the things are like basic character agency. You know, you would think that I might do something in this situation, but I didn’t. Yeah, I was not necessarily a big fan of that.
Oren: I was really excited briefly for what I thought the plot was going to be. We open up with this evil archeological society at the turn of the 20th century whose main hobby is sending out collectors to pillage artifacts from other countries. And I was like, “okay, so this is going to be a story about undoing all of that. We’re going to get some justice for the people whose stuff has been plundered to fill this archeological society’s hall.” I was really excited. That is not what the story was about, even a little bit. That could have been so cool though.
Wes: But it’s also not the genre premise. Coming of age stories have to be more internal, which is why there’s a lot more focus on that emotional conflict that January feels over everything else.
Chris: I do feel like this is a circumstance where the story might not really be centered around what Harrow really wanted to talk about. It’s clear that what she cares about is this meta commentary on stories. I can’t help but feel like if this plot was reconfigured, we could have the main character actually doing something that allows Harrow to focus on that instead of having January having no agency and sitting at home, reading a book. Cause I felt like the process of January reading this book was the part that Harrow actually liked. The Doors were a symbolism for stories, but she wasn’t actually as interested in them.
Wes: I like the premise of, and Harrow is not unique in this certainly. I mean the book is escape. We’re set at the turn of the 20th century. The turn of the 20th century, there were particularly gendered forms of oppressive violence against women, asylums drugging, and forced stillness treatments for “hysterical behavior,” even to the point where they were banned from reading because that was too stimulating.
We’ve talked on this podcast before about Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. Harrow is a historian turned author. I’m curious to what extent that’s at play here where even January’s reading is a subversion of what’s going on. But for us today, maybe that doesn’t land as hard.
Chris: Well, it just doesn’t inherently have plot to it.
Wes: It doesn’t cause the point is just “This is the crappy situation. Here’s the escape.” And the stories are all different.
Chris: But it could have. Imagine this was a book about a society of women who were…people were trying to keep them from reading, and they were passing around these secret magic books. It could have been about that. That’s the thing, is that you could make your plot about anything.
I will say, there is a sequence with an asylum that January was put in. Again usually asylums stories end up being kind of cringeworthy because a lot of times it’s just very ableist. I thought this was handled quite well. Where it’s clear that this asylum is just where British people send the women in their families to control them and silence them, and that if the woman here were having some wellness issues, the asylum created them. There were a lot of social justice themes that I thought were pretty well done in the imperialism and talking about the asylums and some of those other issues, as far as I know, were well handled.
Oren: Although I have to say, the novel’s depiction of revolution and change historically just really bothered me beyond it being boring, which it was. The whole concept, which is presented to us as “we need to have these magic Doors between worlds because otherwise we would never have change and we would never throw off oppressive systems.” And I’m like, “all right, that’s already a pretty big ask. I’m pretty sure people on this planet can do that on their own.” This is just dangerously close to, “and then wizards cause World War II,” which is a thing that most authors know not to do because it’s kind of disrespectful. Then we go further, and we talk about how all these famous people could only [do] the things they do because of going through Doors. We give Doors credit for the Sepoy Mutiny in India. And we say that Red Cloud, the Native American war leader, was successful because he got some magic bones from the other side of a Door. And I was like, this is just racist. This is going beyond just historically inaccurate. We are now in outright offensive territory, and it just kept going like that. And it was like, oh my God, what is happening? I hated it.
Chris: Maybe Harrow wanted to make a point about stories creating change. And at Mythcreants, we make a big point about how stories matter, and we do think that they make a difference. But I would never [say] that stories are responsible for all change in the world.
There’s a lot of messages in here that are very told and never shown. I never really believed them for that reason. And certainly the Doors creating change is one of those instances, where we’re told over and over again that Doors are responsible for change. I don’t see it. I don’t believe it. It’s never really justified why or how.
Oren: They also talk about how this period of time, which is like the 10 or 15 years before World War I as being super static when nothing is changing, and then this is blamed on the bad guys closing these magic Doors between worlds. And I’m just like, I can’t imagine how you could look at history and think that that particular time in the world was especially static or unchanging. China had just gone through a revolution at that time. Democracy was spreading in Europe. The women’s rights movement was getting off the ground. There was so much happening. I want to call it Eurocentric, but I can’t even call it that because the Balkans were happening during this time period. It’s like pre- World War I France-centric cause there’s this image that some people try to create of the utopia of pre- World War I France and how great it was. That’s what this book feels like. It’s such a bad understanding of history and to what purpose?
Chris: The last thing I really want to talk about that I have to mention is the characterization. I didn’t like the inner book exposition parts, but that’s not as unusual as I wish it was. But the characterization of the main character really stands out as being unusually bad. We have some explanation where we find out the antagonist has been basically using his mind-powers to change the main character’s personality starting when she was a child. That idea unfortunately, it’s supposed to be [a reveal] that comes later. Unfortunately, that very concept of trying to do that in your story is really flawed because you really need the audience to know what’s going on with your character and why they’re doing what they’re doing.
The best thing that I could think of that you could do similar to that is that you could make it clear that something is affecting the behavior of your main character, but not know what until later. Kind of keep that mysterious. But trying to do this thing where you have something externally magically affecting your main character, but then not revealing it til later doesn’t work because people have to believe that behavior in the moment. And if they believe that behavior in the moment, then there’s nothing to explain later. So you have to let people know that there’s something influencing him.
However, even if we take that out, January just doesn’t have a personality to speak of or any level of consistency. She does whatever the plot needs at any moment. I’m going to get into self-harm here a little bit. But we have one sequence where her power is to, because everything is story commentary, the things that she writes comes true, and we can totally get into the things that are wrong with his magic system. She literally decides that the only way that she can possibly write is to write in her skin. We can’t even write in blood on the floor. That’s not good enough. We have a very long body horror-ish gruesome scene, that I had to skip because I’m not into body horror, where she carves into her flesh. There’s just nothing about this, that made sense or that she had to do. There would be so much easier ways for her to write. As I said, even just writing in blood on the floor, she had to write in blood.
And there’s another sequence where she literally has the antagonist at gunpoint, and because Harrow needs the antagonist to get away, she decides to close her eyes. Yeah, she just heard some bad emotional news, but even so, I cannot believe that somebody would choose to close their eyes while holding a dangerous person at gunpoint.
Throughout the book she, again, she does what’s plot convenient, and she doesn’t really have a personality, and it does stand out as just not being good characterization.
Oren: This is, of course, before we even get into the fact that she has effectively godlike powers in a story that’s supposed to be about disempowerment. This is just a very odd combination here.
Chris: Harrow really wants us to just overlook it. She used her powers, but then she forgot about it for awhile. She assumed they didn’t work. Most people would run some tests.
Oren: Just try to experiment a little bit.
Chris: I haven’t even talked about the random vampire.
Oren: Oh yeah, there’s a vampire.
Chris: There’s a theme breakage that also happens in the story.
Wes: He’s like a heat vampire.
Chris: It’s not a vampire. That’s the thing.
Oren: You could say that he stopped me cold.[Laughter]
Chris: Oh no. Alright, anything else about the story?
Wes: You’re not going to find a book on this list that doesn’t have problems that we’re going to dig into. If you’re looking for something that has good evocative writing, but you’re not really here for the plot or stakes or action driven sequences or characterization that makes a lot of sense, then you’re like me and you’re going to have a lot of fun reading this book.
If you’re like Chris and Oren, you might throw it across the room, and that’s okay too. We’re all here to have fun. This one, I like it better than City in the Middle of the Night because even though there was plenty of stuff at fault with it, there was enough good writing to make it worth my while. I didn’t feel that way with the previous book.
Oren: So we’ll go ahead and end the podcast on that note. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website, mythcreants.com.
Before we go. I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo, and she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you later.[Closing Theme]
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?