Portal fantasies – stories that begin in the world we know but find their characters venturing through wardrobes, or tumbling down rabbit holes, into a world where animals talk and magic is real – can seem like pure escapism. But they’ve always been more than that. Portal fantasies teach us about our own world. Some serve as a means of exploring and deconstructing tropes; some reinforce certain rules and dominant narratives while seeming to throw logic out the window. And sometimes, portal fantasies are simply necessary. They are not about running away; they are about learning how to to survive.
Riverland by Fran Wilde and The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow are both novels about survival. They are necessary. While they’re very different – one historic, one contemporary, one spanning a few weeks, one spanning years – they also share many similarities. They are both stories about the power of narratives to shape our lives, and they both teach their protagonists how to live in a world that isn’t always kind to them. They are important.
As anyone who reads my reviews regularly likely knows, I enjoy finding common threads among works. I like books and stories that talk to each other, either intentionally or not. So here I am, applying that lens to The Ten Thousand Doors of January and Riverland, opening the doors between them, and listening to them speak. Spoilers ahead. Consider yourself warned…
Riverland begins with sisters Mike and Eleanor hiding under Eleanor’s bed, telling stories. Their stories are a form of escape from a house where things break, where there are raised hands and raised voices, and telling anyone about family business and “bringing trouble” is the worst offense imaginable. Their stories are also a wish, and a form of magic. They are a way of understanding the world; in stories, they can safely say “one day, our real parents will come for us” and never have to directly address the horrible situation they’re in and are afraid to speak of out loud.
“Once upon a time…”
“Why do you always start like that? Why not someday, or tomorrow?”
“Because that’s how stories start, Mike. They’re already over when you tell them. They’re safer that way.”
Mike and Eleanor occupy a liminal space. They yearn for magic to be real, and they are almost young enough to believe it. Yet they are both older than their years, and beneath their yearning, there is a sense of hopelessness. Eleanor especially is old enough to feel a burden and unfairness to her life that seems to preclude the possibility of magic. She’s trying to protect Mike, but has no real resources to do so; she’s expected be quiet and behave and never get angry, even when she’s surrounded by anger every day; and she’s asked to lie to protect her family’s secrets, even though those secret put her in danger. She feels trapped, powerless, and the reader feels those things right along with her.
Then the world of her stories manifests as real, and she and Mike tumble from the space under her bed into a river that can’t possibly exist. They meet a pony made of dishrags, and a heron made of sea glass and driftwood. They’re asked to honor a compact their family made before they were ever born and save a world they only just discovered existed. Eleanor and Mike learn that even magical worlds come with unfair expectations and burdens that they will be asked to carry, despite their young age. There is danger in the river, and the consequences they face there threaten to spill over into the real world as well.
Riverland is beautifully-written. It is painful, and it is also necessary. Ultimately, it is a story about sisters learning to save themselves and each other. Even though they’re young, even though they shouldn’t have to do it, even though it’s impossible as a reader to stop hoping that someone will swoop in and intervene – a neighbor, a teacher, another family member, even a heron made of driftwood – they are on their own. Riverland gives us the hard truth that sometimes there isn’t anyone else. Sometimes you have to do the scary and terrible thing on your own, even though it hurts and you’re afraid.
One of the most beautiful lessons Eleanor learns over the course of her journey is that there are good kinds of mad, and bad kinds of mad. The bad kind makes you lash out at other people. The good kind leads you to stand up against what is unfair, to speak out even when you’ve been told to keep quiet. It is an important lesson for girls especially, who are too often conditioned by society not to make a fuss, to go along and keep everyone happy. They are taught that their own pain and discomfort is secondary, and the worst thing they can do is make someone else upset, even if staying silent means putting themselves in danger. It isn’t only an important lesson for girls however, it’s an important lesson for everyone. Abusers thrive on making people feel powerless, isolated, and as though speaking up will only bring more pain. The lesson applies to adults on the outside of a bad situation as well. It’s easy to see something wrong and assume someone else will take care of it. It’s easy to feel it isn’t our place to fix it, or that the problem will go away on its own. It’s easy to feel like there’s nothing we can do to help, so why bother to try? It’s easy to convince ourselves we’re imagining things, and maybe there isn’t anything wrong at all. That’s the problem. It’s easy. And so bad things are allowed to continue, because it’s easier to look the other way and pretend not to see them happening.But as Eleanor learns, doing the right thing is scary, and hard.
Riverland is a portal fantasy about travel to another world, but it is very much about this world as well. It is about fighting back and standing up, and not staying silent. It is about getting angry at unfairness, and turning that anger into fuel to save yourself and those around you. It is necessary, and it is beautiful.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January follows the journey of January Scaller, a character whose life seems very different from Eleanor and Mike’s. She’s an only child, with a father she rarely sees, being raised by father’s employer, Mr. Locke. While her father is off in far corners of the world, searching for rare artifacts for Mr. Locke’s collection, January rambles around Mr. Locke’s house, usually with only her own imagination for company. Mr. Locke cares for her, but at the same time, he also treats her as part of his collection, a clever curiosity he can show off as long as she behaves.
Like Mike and Eleanor, January lives a kind of liminal existence. Her guardian is wealthy, but she possesses nothing of her own. She’s too brown to belong in white society, too female to have true independence and worth. She doesn’t belong anywhere, until she stumbles through a door in the middle of a field that leads to another world. Until she discovers a book hidden in a chest in Mr. Locke’s house, which speaks of otherworldly and magical places, telling the story of a young woman who once found a door very much like the one January found, and spent all her life trying to find her way back to it and to the young man who stepped through it and into her world one day. Until January discovers she does indeed have power, the kind of power that terrifies men like Mr. Locke.
Mr. Locke keeps secrets from January. He tries to control her. Like Eleanor and Mike, she’s constantly being told that anger, stubbornness, and standing up for herself are all unacceptable qualities in a young woman. When January learns she has the power to open doors between worlds, the knowledge comes with danger from those who fear change and would do anything to maintain the status quo. Stories, narratives, other worlds with other ways of being – where women and people with brown skin are not second-class citizens – have the power to affect change in this world, and that is something that Mr. Locke and his friends can’t bear to have happen. They’ll do anything to stop those stories from being told, and those doors from being opened, including burning the doors, and killing January.
“If we address stories as archaeological sites, and dust through their layers with meticulous care, we find at some level there is always a doorway. A dividing point between here and there, us and them, mundane and magical. It is at the moment when the doors open, when things flow between them, that stories happen.”
While January starts off largely alone, she builds her own family along the way – including her neighbor Samuel, who used to slip her adventure magazines along with the groceries he delivered from his family’s store when they were young, Jane Imiru, hired by Mr. Locke to be January’s companion, and Bad, the best dog ever. While they may not be family by birth, they are still family, and they fight for each other, and rescue each other the way Eleanor and Mike do.
Harrow does a fantastic job of making the face of evil look like the face of reason at times, and of casting doubt as to who has January’s best interests at heart. There is gaslighting at play, and over the course of the novel, January learns to trust her instincts and trust herself, even if that means flying in the face of everything she’s taught is right and proper for a young woman to do.
In both Riverland and The Ten Thousand Doors of January, the worlds the protagonists escape to are vital in teaching them how to survive their own world. They learn how to fight back, question authority, and stand up for what they believe in. Most importantly, they learn how to fight against the status quo, and those who are invested in keeping certain power structures in place. Whether it’s white men running the world, or a parent with absolute control over their family, Eleanor, Mike, and January’s worlds are all designed to be a closed system until another world breaks through and changes everything.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January and Riverland are both rife with magic and moments of heartbreak as well. Bravery is on display, as is fear and the feeling of being trapped and powerless. But Eleanor and January are both character who get back up, who do the hard thing, even when they are afraid, and shout back at the unfairness of the world. By the end of their respective journeys, they both know that portals can be a means of escape, but they can also be a means to bring you more fully in the world and teach you how to claim your space in it and not let anyone take that space away from you.