THE TEN THOUSAND DOORS OF JANUARY, by Alix E. Harrow

It’s not often that I feel compelled to review a book, but then it’s not often I read a book like THE TEN THOUSAND DOORS OF JANUARY.

THE TEN THOUSAND DOORS OF JANUARY, by Alix E. Harrow, came out in 2019, but I only stumbled upon it recently. It will most likely be my favorite book this year. It falls into one of my favorite genres of sf: portal fantasy. If you’re not familiar with the phrase, you’re almost definitely familiar with the type of story. In a portal fantasy an ordinary person is transported from one world to another via magic, perhaps through a secret door, a piece of furniture (like a wardrobe), or some other magical mechanism. Think the Narnia books, THE WIZARD OF OZ, PETER PAN …

As TEN THOUSAND DOORS opens, young January Scaller lives in a sprawling mansion with her guardian, a wealthy gentleman archaeologist.  January is sort of an orphan, and spends her days largely by herself, exploring the mansion’s collection of mysterious artifacts.  All that changes when January discovers a strange book that tells a story filled with secret doors, adventure, other worlds, long-lost lovers … and as she reads on, she begins to her connection to the story is very personal.  Adventure ensues.

I am a sucker for a book that features a book-in-a-book as a narrative device, and it’s expertly done here.  I won’t talk about that aspect any further, so as to not spoil it, but it’s a lot of fun.  Harrow’s writing is vivid and full of wit, and the story just completely reeled me in.  January goes on a Hero’s Journey, as one would expect from this type of book, but it’s done in a way that’s organic to the story.  She doesn’t just level up at the end of each chapter.  It’s earned, and certainly not easy.

Most of the main characters are BIPOC, and as the story is set in the early 20th century, Harrow doesn’t shy away from dealing with how, uh, challenging not being white in that era would be.  It never feels heavy-handed or clunky, though.  The characters’ non-whiteness doesn’t define who they are; it just makes them more richly drawn.

If I were to describe how reading TEN THOUSAND WORLDS made me feel, I would compare it to MR. PENUMBRA’S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE and THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF ADDIE LARUE. That’s not to say that the plot bears any resemblance to those books; they don’t, other than – and this is just now occurring to me – they too feature stories as a plot device. No, what I’m saying is that when I finished each of them, I sat back, happy, knowing I’d just read a hell of a book.

Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction

Via Alan Jacobs’s excellent Snakes & Ladders newsletter, the Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction, as codified by mystery writer Ronald Knox in the 1920s.

  1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
  8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
  9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Barring the casual racism in # 5, these rules generally make as much sense today as they did when Knox came up with them, nearly a hundred years ago.

Here We Go Again

Ringing in the new year like…

Hah. Or something like that.

The transition from 2017 to 2018 has been a quiet one for me. I have either a head cold, unhinged allergies, or a sinus issue, or some charming combination thereof. So tonight I’m staying in, sucking down cough drops like it’s my job, and watching the terribly bad but entertaining THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER. Don’t be jealous.

I haven’t been a total hermit today. Went out earlier with friends for a fancy steak dinner and some time at the casino, where I played blackjack and ended the evening $190 ahead. This was my first time playing blackjack at a casino, and even had I lost my precious monies, it would still have been more entertaining than feeding pennies into the greedy maws of the slot machines. Las Vegas is in my future next summer, so I’m looking forward to losing my savings at blackjack, then trying to win it all back at “Guess a Number Between One and Ten” in some rinky-dink casino, just like Clark W. Griswold. Does anyone else remember VEGAS VACATION, other than me and Nate?

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2017 has been by all accounts a long, bizarre year. I feel like I say some variation of that every year, but damn it, this time I really mean it. I’m not even going to try to collect and summarize my thoughts about the abysmal political and social landscape that’s dominated 2017, except to say: (1) in respect to all things politics, 2017 can fuck right off; (2) my picture appeared in the local newspaper; and (3) I am still emotionally abusing Chrome’s Word Replacer extension by making it replace a certain person’s name with “My Ass,” and thus making my eyes bleed a little less when I read the news. So to paraphrase the meme, Word Replacer is the real MVP.

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According to my comprehensive authors spreadsheet, I read 22 books in 2017 (not counting graphic novels), down slightly from 25 in 2016. I would like to get that number closer to 30, but we’ll see. Life is a lot busier than it was, which I am not unhappy about. Still: it’s good to have goals.

Favorite book from 2016 was Michael Swanwick’s NOT SO MUCH, SAID THE CAT. Swanwick is a wonderful novelist, yes, but he is also one of the finest short story writers alive, and with this collection he again demonstrates why.

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2017, for me at least, is ending on a relatively high note. 2018 may be worse or it may better, but despite my occasionally affected cynicism, I remain a cautious optimist. No resolutions this year, except to read more books, eat better, and drink more wine.

Here we go again. Strap in. Happy New Year.

THE WHITE MOUSE

The story goes that in 1944, after being dropped by parachute into Nazi-occupied France, Nancy Wake’s parachute became caught in a tree. A member of the local French maquis that greeted her said he wished all trees could bear such beautiful fruit. “Don’t give me that French shit,” was Wake’s reply.

This story isn’t recounted in Wake’s autobiography, THE WHITE MOUSE, but it’s one she liked to tell after the war, and one of my personal favorites because it succinctly gives you an idea of the kind of woman Nancy Wake was. Like I do with so many things history, I first learned about Wake during a deep-dive into Wikipedia’s bloated compendium on World War II. I was reading about the fall of France, and there was a quick mention of a British SOE agent who parachuted into France in 1944 to help lead the maquis groups of the French Resistance. Prior to joining the SOE, Wake served as a courier for the French Resistance. So effective was she at evading capture, the Gestapo called her “the White Mouse.”

I’d been searching for a copy of THE WHITE MOUSE for several years, and recently, finally, found a copy that wasn’t ridiculously expensive. At a hair over 200 pages, Wake’s autobiography is a short, compelling book. The prose is straightforward but engaging, and reads as though Wake were casually telling you her story over drinks. There are numerous asides and anecdotes about the people she knew and worked with, or the insane situations she found herself in — like bicycling several hundred kilometers across France, avoiding Nazi patrols, in 72 hours to get and receive critical messages. The war years take up the bulk of the book and are the most fascinating, but the rest of the book rounds out the story and provides good context on who Wake was and who she became. Her stories about living in Paris before the war are especially vivid, and made me want to go back again.

All in all, Wake’s tale is equal parts witty, grim, and charming. It’s an excellent book by a remarkable woman.

THE WHITE MOUSE, Nancy Wake (Goodreads)