Look at that gorgeous cover. I want to do up a room of my house with that sort of wallpaper.
And yes, I’m digressing because I want to say something nice about this book before I say something(s) that will likely sound churlish. This is not, by any means, a bad book, but it is basically a primer on colonial thought and philosophy for white girls, or more generously for people privileged enough to have profited off of colonialism while never having to reconcile their nice lives with the suffering inherent in the power structures that have enriched them. I think, perhaps, if I had come to this as a teenager myself, as a nascent political being examining my own relationship with society, with what I’ve been given and what I owe, I would have found this book far more thought-provoking and perhaps less derivative. I know it’s meant to be an homage to the many portal fantasy novels that have enlivened the childhoods of millions, but it felt more like a weird retread of The Journey Of Natty Gann meets A Little Princess with a splash of Marianne Dreams, and I felt that my time would have honestly been better spent re-reading Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, even the irritating In An Absent Dream. I also cringed at the interview included in the library edition ebook, where Alix E Harrow claims that everyone came to portal fantasies from the 1988 TV miniseries of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. I’m hoping she was trying to be funny, because that’s such a bizarre thing to say otherwise.
Even so, this book would have been perfectly fine if it weren’t for the fact that January, our purported heroine, is a total ninny. When bad things happen, she realizes that she’s been conditioned to freeze, and then instead of trying to fight her conditioning, she basically falls back on it as an excuse to not fight back. I don’t need the books I read to be inspirational, but I would also like to feel more than a simmering contempt for the characters I’m reading about. Would 100% have preferred to read a book from the perspective of Jane or Samuel or possibly even Ade or, JFC, even Locke (but definitely not Julian, he sucked.) In all honesty, I feel that January was constructed primarily to advance plot rather than to react to it, which is just bad writing. I expected far better of Ms Harrow after reading her short fiction. And after reading the excerpt of her next book, which felt bizarrely derivative of this book, I’m not sure I’m going to be reading much more of her long form stuff in future.
Oh, I guess I should recap the book itself. In turn of the 20th century Vermont, January Scaller is the young ward of rich Mr Locke, who raises the “oddly colored” girl as a proper American miss while her dark-skinned adventurer father goes gallivanting round the world, bringing treasures back for Locke to either hoard or sell. As she grows, she discovers Doors between our world and other realms, but that powerful forces are attempting to close them. When her father is reported dead while on a business trip, she decides to run away. Adventures ensue. Metaphors abound. January is not very smart and not very sympathetic. More metaphors on how reading is A PORTAL TO OTHER WORLDS, in case you, as a reader, were somehow not already aware of this. Plot twists are telegraphed from at least five chapters away.
This is the kind of book I’m predisposed to enjoying but the execution was just really not great. Maybe if I were younger, less socially conscious and/or less well read. Anyway, that’s two Hugo nominees for Best Novel down. Hopefully, I’ll find one I love in the four to go!