Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Very Different Debuts

I’m seeing a lot of love for award-winning author Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January. I understand why it must be grabbing some people so hard, for its quiet, lonely, trapped protagonist, the titular January, feels like someone a lot of us might recognise a little too closely, a little too intimately, from our childhoods, and her journey of growth and discovery of other worlds reflects the metaphorical discovery made by many readers that they, too, can find portals to very different places if they look hard enough—and the discovery by many children that adulthood opens different doors.

One of the things that interests me about my own reaction to The Ten Thousand Doors of January is how much I admire the technical skill of the novel—the characterisation, the deftness with which the world, or worlds, of the novel is drawn, the elegance of the prose and the effectiveness of its atmosphere—but how the metaphors that suffuse this text subtly contribute to my alienation from it. The presence of the metaphoric book-as-doorway—subtly present, deftly present, but strongly present nonetheless—and the narrative-within-a-narrative of the part-scholarship-dissertation, part-memoir that January finds and which reveals more of the world and of her history makes me feel as though The Ten Thousand Doors of January is working within an affective and emotional world that awards books far more personal—mythologised?—significance than I do. (And I’m aware how weird that sounds, coming from me.) This means I’m always aware of the novel as a artificial thing, a construct, and that’s not my usual experience of reading at all.

And yet. It’s a fantastic novel. Slow to get started, yes: January begins as a rather passive, naive child, who has a lot of growing to do. But once she discovers how she’s been lied to, the pace picks up. This is a book about power, about imperialism and control—and resistance, and family, and discovery. It’s gorgeously written—seriously, the language in this book!—deftly characterised, and interestingly, ambitiously constructed. And while The Ten Thousand Doors of January is an extraordinarily promising and technically successful debut, I’m pretty damn sure that we can expect even better work of Harrow in the years to come.

Valerie Valdes’ Chilling Effect is a debut that grabbed me faster and harder than The Ten Thousand Doors of January—and understandably so, as they’re very different books. Chilling Effect is a fast-paced space opera solidly underpinned by humour, with an entertaining cast. Tonally (and in occasional brief asides) it reminds me of Mass Effect: it shares the same sense of a wide universe with a depth of history that’s inhabited by ordinary people with ordinary things like jobs and cultural differences and opinions about media and entertainment. Protagonist Eva Innocente (captain of La Sirena Negra) barely makes ends meet doing legitimate work, but she’s promised herself that she’ll stay on the mostly-aboveboard side of things. Then she’s blackmailed into working for a vast criminal organisation called the Fridge, who’ve kidnapped her sister and will keep her in cryostasis until Eva satisfies their demands. Eva has plenty of skills a criminal organisation might find useful—she has a Dark Past of sorts—but she also has standards and ethics.

And she’s a cocky asshole who’s convinced lying to her crew—including the hot engineer she’s been developing an ill-advised set of feelings for—will work out fine and protect them if she just goes about it the right way. When everything falls apart, though, Eva has to keep going, and figure out how the hell she’s going to make things right.

Strongly paced, well characterised, interesting and fun, I found myself really enjoying Chilling Effect, and I hope to see a lot more from Valdes in the years to come.

What are you guys reading this week?

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.


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