Yes. This is that book.
There are portal fantasies—the Narnias, the Walk Out of the the Worlds, the Strays—and then there are the fantasies about portals. Some books are about the world through the door—adventure! talking animals! the chance to be a hero!—and some are about the doors themselves—the possibility of them, how they work, what they mean. And there are some authors who understand portals so well you know they must have experienced them; it's too real for them to have made it up. Diana Wynne Jones was one. Alix E. Harrow is another.
Harrow's writing is so vivid, so gorgeous, so powerful. She opens those doors for us and drags us into January's world, and then we glimpse the next one, and then ... oh, the structure of this novel! So brilliant! Stories within stories, doors beyond doors.
January is awesome. We first see her as a bright, imaginative, willful child, and as she grows up and has to choose if she will be the kind of person who can open doors, her journey is wrenching, nail-biting, infuriating. Oooh, the evil people in this book!
Jane is amazing. Don't want to spoil Jane for you; you'll just have to meet her yourself. Samuel—oh, I love Samuel! Then there are Julian and Adelaide: they squeeze my heart. The fierce women in this story! The character arcs from hesitation and denial to strength and courage. The evil, evil villains!
So, yeah, Harrow can do characters. Also there's a dog named Bad. He is pretty much the best thing in the story. Other than the Doors. And Jane. And Samuel. The book is really just a bunch of best things.
I'm torn between wanting to tell you all of them and not wanting to spoil anything. I'll just say the worlds are fantastic, the magic makes sense, the mystery is spooled out at just the right pace and the revelations are all totally satisfying. Oh, it sounds so bland when I sum it up like that! Somehow I want to convey that I had such high, high expectations of this book, and it didn't disappoint me once. It just kept making me happier!
I know: I can give you quotations.
The Door seemed to be murmuring in a soft, clattering language made of wood rot and peeling paint.
It's an odd feeling, having one's wildest suspicions proved true. It's satisfying to find you aren't insane, of course, but somewhat disheartening to realize you are indeed being hunted by a shadowy organization of apparently infinite reach.
It was the kind of stillness that makes the hairs on your arms stand up, and makes you think of wolves and snakes waiting in the high grass.
It felt like donning a suit of armour or sprouting wings, extending past the boundaries of myself; it felt an awful lot like love.There's a really great quotation about destiny that I can't find (one of the limitations of a paper book, I suppose!). You'll just have to read it and let me know when you get to it!
I know I'm supposed to be getting a head start on YA Spec Fic Cybils nominees, and I swear that was my intention when I went to the library, but I can't be sad that this book landed in my hands. (It would make a great YA read, actually, even though it's marketed as adult.) I can't wait to see what magic Alix E. Harrow will unleash on us next! (Apparently it's something to do with suffragettes and witches, so more awesomeness!)(She has a great interview here.)
Also, you must, must read her Hugo-winning short story, A Witch's Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies. (This story slays me every time I read it.)(Here's a teaser quotation, and this tells you everything you need to know about Alix E. Harrow:
It’s official library policy to report truants to the high school, because the school board felt we were becoming “a haven for unsupervised and illicit teenage activity.” I happen to think that’s exactly what libraries should aspire to be, and suggested we get it engraved on a plaque for the front door.)