You ever read a book and think, huh. That is so much like this other book, but also entirely different. What a magnificent world we live in where I can read both and compare them!
The Starless Sea and The Ten Thousand Doors of January!
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern promises a book cult with spies and assassins and queer love and Myth with a Capital letter. What you get is more like the tent from The Night Circus littered with fantastical bottles crammed with scented memories and experiences. This isn’t a negative, but it’s also not a positive. Haute Couture of literature. Fancy, dazzling to the imagination, monsters inked on gilt-edged wine bottles I’ve drunk, but not something I can wear.
A bookworm college kid finds an old book in which a private memory of his is told. A chance he didn’t take as a child. This leads him to maybe falling in love, maybe saving the world, maybe losing himself, maybe maybe maybe. This inability to explain Zachary’s role in the book is a problem. I loved Eleanor and Simon. I loved Moon and Sun and the innkeeper. I loved The Kitchen. Fate and Time. The whole Harbor Pantheon, but see…I’ve left out Damion and Allegra because who and why? There’s just so much unanswered or that I misunderstood.
I wanted to feel. I wanted to die with longing. I wanted to understand. But alas, by the end it all felt like so much confetti left on the ballroom floor. Who is the Owl King and does it matter, really? Why would you show me the crushing martyrdom of Eleanor and then not show me the reunion with her lost love? Who is Rhyme? Why is Rhyme? I’m kinda angry about not having clear answers to some of these questions, I’ll be honest.
Doorways are promises.
I felt like I stepped through the doorways given in this book with complete faith and trust, and instead found the back of the wardrobe fully intact. Implacable.
That’s not to say Morgenstern’s writing isn’t special. It is absolutely a drowning in honey. It’s a harbor in a time when we need stories tucked in stars. I will probably buy this book despite how frustrated I felt by the characters and their smudged motivations, longings, and endings. This is a book that requires multiple readings and patience with the magic.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow is also a plot propelled by a book. A story read by January becomes an escape from her stifling and lonely reality, and inside, she discovers a story about herself. Outside of the book, she discovers her own abilities: both magical and mundane.
The start of TTTDoJ was slower than I expected. The initial voice didn’t hook me, but once the story grabbed me (about pg 130), the voice found its wings. It felt as if the affectations were dropped, the leaping excitement of having so much space to write into, and the determination to make me care dropped away, and Harrow’s writing bloomed into the promise of that stunning cover.
Like The Starless Sea, there are alternating chapters for most of the book with separate-but-equal characters. Unlike The Starless Sea, I cared about both character sets and felt grounded in both worlds. There were times when I was frustrated at the switch between stories, but that’s a compliment and a calculated risk of writing in this style.
Harrow’s abilities truly shine as the pacing and action accelerate. I made noises out loud while reading the last third of this book. I moaned and sighed and gasped and got angry enough at a character’s bad decision that I had to set the book down and collect myself. I have a favorite, fierce line. And, several quotable truisms are dropped into this fantasy with a seer’s grace. All signs of excellent craft.
There were some tropes in this book readers will either love or hate. Another calculated risk. This, in my opinion, shows maturity on Harrow’s part — a trust in the novel finding the right reader, and not attempting to push so hard at things that they unravel in the writing. I feel she walked deathly close to this edge at the start, but it was worth the teetering tightrope to get to the galloping excitement and the absolutely satisfying brilliance of the end.
Both books have much in common, but where they choose to put their energies differs. While each of them has villains trying to close doors and keep control of what they perceive as a threat, only Harrow’s villains were fully realized and terrifying to me.
Both have main characters and side characters of color. Harrow almost missteps here, but I think she recovers right at the end. Jane is not left hanging in quite the same way as Zachary’s mother. I felt Morgenstern’s characters were only of color by description — there’s no real identity or context explored. I did appreciate the gay romance, but the instalove was just as context-less as the rest, so it fell flat for me.
Keys (and locks) are everywhere in both novels, and while Morgenstern’s book is stuffed so full of imaginative settings and symbols that you practically trip over them on every page, Harrow’s imaginative inserts are more memorable for being critical to the story itself. These are different style choices, and readers will just need to explore both worlds.
Thanks for reading!
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