So obviously the first thing that drew me to this book was the title. It’s awesome! Plus, I was born in January and it turns out that means I have a soft spot for that name/month (who knew?). But then the cover is also gorgeous and the description sounded great too. Ever since getting really into the Every Heart a Doorway series (by Seanan McGuire), I’ve had an increased interest in other door/portal-based fantasies. Anyways, the library waitlist for this one was long, but I finally got to read it.
January Scaller has been raised for years in the home of a wealthy benefactor, Mr. Locke, who employs her father to travel the globe “collecting” rare treasures/specimens to add to Locke’s collection. As a child, January was precocious and, as she heard herself called, temerarious. At age 17, she finds a strange book, one that tells a story all about secret doors, an inter-world love story, adventure and, just maybe, holds information about her own family history. So, January sets off on a journey (well, at least to start, she’s sort of forced into said journey) to find that spirit she had as a child and face danger, find truth and explore multiple worlds. But, in the process, she’ll also find friendship, freedom, family and, just maybe, her own love story.
Alright, I had some really mixed feelings about this one. Which, to be honest, is a bit sad because the premise was so great. But let me try to explain. First, and importantly, the premise remains great. The idea of doors as portals to other worlds, the way that Harrow creates a fairy-tale-like story around them, how she uses them as plot devices and for general development, the way they tie each characters’ story together from start to finish and woven throughout…it was all handled so magnificently. And although some of the “twists” in the story were fairly predictable and formulaic for YA-ish fantasy, I enjoyed reading them all the same (it’s a genre I love for a reason). The sense of adventure was strong all the way through and made for, overall, a really fun reading experience. There were echoes of “speculative history”/scholarship similar to The Philosopher’s Flight and feels of riotous and irreverent escapades similar to Jane Steele (my favorite Jane Eyre retelling and one of my favorite books of all time), all of which I was really into. Plus, the pacing kept things going really nicely as far as page-turning and movement. But there were definitely some plot holes, especially once January started to realize her own power (in all the senses of that word) and the “danger” parts of the story really ramp up, that nagged at me, but I’ve always been good at overlooking small things in favor of the whole, so that wasn’t as big of a deal for me as it might have been. The biggest thing this book had going for it, in my opinion was the fantastically personable voice of the narrator (January herself) and the tone of complete veneration, awe and wonder used to describe stories and their importance, power and reach (it resonated with me deeply). In addition, the tale of searching for love that January finds in the “strange” book is the perfect sort of fairy-tale-esque “meant to be” and “love will find a way” story and my heart couldn’t help but melt for it. Plus, the ending left me with a bubbling, anticipatory, “promises to be fulfilled,” sort of feeling that felt just right for this novel.
On the other hand, there were some parts that rang discordantly for me. I already mentioned a few of the plot holes (at least, I saw them as holes, perhaps others read them differently). But, primarily, it is an issue of the author’s treatment of January’s skin color. At first, I read it as she was, sort of reddish, and it was weird, but unique. But then as the story progressed, she was referred to as “colored” (this book took place in the early 1900s, so the vocabulary was time period appropriate). And while I get that the casual observer would put her in a category that best fits what they know, I just didn’t feel that Harrow handled the change, and the descriptions of reactions/treatment, and January’s subsequent experience(s) moving through the world like that on her own, quite appropriately. I don’t know exactly what was wrong, I can’t pinpoint it, but it felt off to me. Similarly, she did seem to act younger than the 17 years she was purported to be. I’m willing to accept a little naivete considering the sheltered way she was raised and the general treatment/position of women for the time period, but still…she seemed much younger than 17. And last, I can’t really say why, but I felt a little distant as I read this. It may have just been the mental state I was in when I picked it up, you never know. But I didn’t feel as pulled into this novel as I wanted to be. It was good, I was invested, I got emotional at the end, but something just was missing for me, that big tug that would have made me fall headfirst into things. I just never disappeared into the pages.
Overall, this was definitely entertaining. I enjoyed the premise, loved the writing, and was invested enough to want to finish and see how things went. But some of the small things about the story made it fall slightly short of my (albeit quite high) expectations. I would still recommend it as a fast-paced YA fantasy adventure, a distinctive take on an historical time period infused with magic, and for fans of portal fantasies and readers who love books that love books, as Harrow did a fantastic job with those aspects.
Some gorgeous quotes from this one:
“Sometimes I feel there are doors lurking in the creases of every sentence, with periods for knobs and verbs for hinges.”
“Those of you who are more than casually familiar with books — those of you who spend your free afternoons in fusty bookshops, who offer furtive, kindly strokes along the spines of familiar titles — understand that page riffling is an essential element in the process of introducing oneself to a new book. It isn’t about reading the words; it’s about reading the smell, which wafts from the pages in a cloud of dust and wood pulp. It might smell expensive and well bound, or it might smell of tissue-thin paper and blurred two-colour prints, or of fifty years unread in the home of a tobacco-smoking old man. Books can smell of cheap thrills or painstaking scholarship, or literary weight or unsolved mysteries.”
“I happen to believe every story is a love story if you catch it at the right moment, slantwise in the light of dusk.”
“She accumulated the dust of other worlds on her skin like ten thousand perfumes, and left constellations of wistful men and impossible tales in her wake.”
“You people are always trying to invent reasons for things. Monsters only come for bad children, for loose women, for impious men. The truth is that the powerful come for the weak, whenever and wherever they like. Always have, always will.”
“It felt like donning a suit of armor or sprouting wings, extending past the boundaries of myself; it felt an awful lot like love.”
“The will to be polite, to maintain civility and normalcy, is fearfully strong. I wonder sometimes how much evil is permitted to run unchecked simply because it would be rude to interrupt it.”