If you have grown up reading Narnia books and dreaming of the secret gardens, as I did, you know you will always love a good book about a magic door (or a closet) that leads into another world. The writers (and publishers) know this fact well, and so they keep supplying us with lovely stories of what can be found behind those mysterious doors. I am certainly not complaining.
So here are three somewhat recent books about magical doors that lead… elsewhere.
Ten thousand doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
January Scaller finds a lonely blue door in the middle of the hayfield when she is a child. She steals a glimpse through it and sees a city on the edge of the ocean. Even when she steps back into her own reality, she can still smell the salty air of that other world. Unfortunately, her wealthy guardian Mr. Locke shows up just then, and she makes the mistake of telling him the truth about the door. Hours later, it is burnt to the ground.
January’s father is always away, employed by Mr.Locke and traveling the world in search of peculiar items and antique treasures for the rich man’s collection. His little girl grows up in the Locke House, surrounded by all the luxury the money can buy in the early 1900s. But she is not very happy and is constantly told to “be a good girl” and to “know her place”. Cue to me continuing to read the book at least to see her rebel.
Why read it
It is a beautiful coming-of-age book and a great specimen of YA literature. The story is well thought through and has a few surprising twists. Harrow writes about the racism of early 20th century America and how January, who is mixed raced, is treated differently when she is alone and not next to her wealthy white guardian.
It was hard at times to read long inner monologues of January, trying to follow what was supposed to be the teenage angst and failed logic without cringing: “I am not his good girl anymore!” But that, I suppose, is an inevitable part of the genre. You can’t bite into a cherry cake and complain about the cherries in it, can you?
The world that Harrow built is gorgeous and full of wonders – there are birds with feathers that grant invisibility and a whole different reality with matriarchy led by leopard women. Even though Ten thousand doors is not presented as series, I hope Alix Harrow writes another book that follows January on her journey.
Last Bus to Everland by Sophie Cameron
Brody Fair is a Scottish teenager that lives in Edinburgh. He is not yet out of the closet, unsure of himself and where he belongs. Life at home is not great. His brother seems to be better at everything and thus is a favorite child (at least that is how Brody feels). His Dad has a severe case of agoraphobia and hasn’t left the house in years. His Mom is the only breadwinner and is struggling to make ends meet. Two of Brody’s neighbors, older girls, bully him at school and when they see him outside of the apartment building.
So, it is no wonder that when he finds out there is a magic door that opens inside National Monument on Calton Hill every Thursday night at precisely 11.21 pm, Brody is eager to escape through it.
Why read it (Spoilers alert!)
Last Bus to Everland is very good at describing self-search and uncertainty that teenagers deal with, especially LGBTQ kids. It is a well-written story where no characters are ultimately good or ultimately bad. Everyone has a past and issues they deal with, so many things are not what they appear to be.
Everland exists in this story as an escape latch that gives characters a place and a time to hang out, explore their passions, forget about the problems at home and meet new friends. Some people choose to stay there forever, but I did get the feeling that Cameron wanted to clearly send the message that while this fairytale “knock-off Narnia” is a nice place to be, serious young people need to choose reality over it and get their shit together.
Cameron’s characters deal with poverty, immigration issues, mental health, meeting society’s and parents’ expectations, eating disorders, growing up gay, and coming out, so there are a lot of themes that readers of all ages can relate to.
I am a little upset that Everland seems more of a clutch for the story and Cameron does not fully explore the magic of it. Spoiler alert – at some point doors to Everland start to close all over the world. There isn’t really an explanation for it but it is a serious matter. People can only exit through the same door they used to enter, so many realize that they might get stuck in Everland forever, should the door close while they are inside. Others decide to never come back home on their own.
This starts to happen right after Brody finds a first edition “Peter Pan” book in Everland’s library and takes it home. Peter Pan? The boy who never wanted to grow up? The old book that symbolizes the whole idea of Everland, taken away from it, like a beating heart ripped out of a still-breathing body?
Until the very last pages, I thought Brody would figure it out, bring the book back behind the magic door, and save Everland. Instead, the door closed, separating the main character from his love interest. Forced to deal with real life, Brody realizes that his brother is not the worst and that his family loves him.
It is a good book and I enjoyed it. But the magic-loving part of me is still salty that this sub-plot with Peter Pan book did not come to be. It was so fitting.
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
Let’s start by saying that if you have read and liked The Night Circus, you would love this Morgenstern book as well. In Starless Sea she brings the same mix of adventure and devastating love stories peppered with magic.
Zachary Ezra Rawlins, just like January, also found a magic door when he was a boy. But unlike her, he decided not to open the door (lest he would learn that the magic is not real). The door, however, or rather, the universe behind the door, does not let him off the hook so easily. Years later, Zachary is a student at a New England University. He finds a strange book in the library and in it a very specific story about him finding that door and missing his chance to see the Starless Sea. Zachary is not willing to let the magic slip away again and finally decides to follow it.
Why read it (some spoilers for Starless Sea and Ten Thousand Doors)
The Starless Sea might not be an easy read for some. It is built like a kaleidoscope of beautiful little shards of glass that give the reader a glimpse into different stories and dimensions. For me, finding the connections between the narratives was half the fun. (Even if I had to repeatedly go back and forth between the chapters and pages, looking for clues). Morgenstern does not tie up all the loose ends, but the story, in general, is cohesive and captivating.
There is a beautiful gay love story at the forefront, but also some heterosexual sub-plots. The book is full of longing – for the loved ones and the magic of the hidden library.
Just like in Ten Thousand Doors, there is an evil organization that believes itself the protector of order and peace. The Guardians here, like the Mr. Locke’s archeological society, want to close the doors from our world to the Starless Sea – to protect the library from changing. (Mr. Locke wanted to ensure that our reality stays protected from other worlds that through the open doors bring change and unrest – like the fight for equality, for example).
In both books, the characters realize that chaos and change are inevitable and good for the world as a whole.
Enchanted doors, closets that lead to snowed-in forests, or fountains that bring you to other worlds, – we all like a bit of magical escapism. The closest thing to it are the books themselves (sometimes quite literally, like in Matt Haig’s Midnight Library). I hope you enjoyed this selection. I am off to find more doors… I mean books!