The epic novel is a delicate and beautiful creature. Authors of these books confront a number of brave choices and dangerous responsibilities, challenging themselves to maintain a vast narrative that holds the reader’s attention while making a powerful comment about the human condition. It’s not easy to keep so many balls in the air, but Okla Elliott and Raul Clement (writing as Aleksandr Tuvim) manage the feat with compelling ease. The Doors You Mark Are Your Own is a novel that is as rewarding as it is ambitious and will interest readers of fantasy, science fiction, and “literary” work.
The book is predicated on a simple conceit: Aleksandr Tuvim is a scholar and writer who has been asked to create a true history of Joshua City, a metropolis that brings to mind our favorite dystopias or dystopias-to-be: The Capitol of The Hunger Games, Orwell’s Oceania, and Lucas’s Coruscant. Joshua City is also clearly influenced by history; the Guardsmen resemble the East German Stasi and the book is awash with Soviet-era iconography. Tuvim begins the story as Joshua City is dealing with nekrosis, a flesh-eating disease that casts a pall over Joshuan life. Mayor Adams employs his Guardsmen to keep everyone in check, but the need for fresh water, as you might imagine, creates the kind of pressure that causes winds of change to blow.
My favorite novel happens to be Les Miserables. I love that book because Hugo has the courage to tell a story that takes place over a number of decades and in a number of settings that encompasses the whole of the human experience, even 150 years after its release. The Doors You Mark Are Your Own is cut much from the same cloth. The book is a prison-break novel. It’s a road story. It’s a political thriller. It’s a romance. It’s a literary examination of the divergent lives of two brothers who love each other even as they take opposite sides in the conflict engulfing Joshua City. Elliott and Clement manage the most difficult feat of all: they keep the narrative taut through the course of more than 700 pages.
Hugo primarily told his story through the experiences of one character; Elliott and Clement pass the focus around more democratically. I loved the dynamic between Nikolas and Adrian, university students who bond in spite of their different philosophies. Adrian is going to be a “doktor” and Nikolas has the fiery blood of revolution in his veins. Nikolas has a brother, Marcik, who becomes one of the Guardsmen propping up the Mayor Adams regime. The authors show us the desert outside of Joshua City and a hospital beyond the limits of Joshuan technology and influence. We get to experience life in a prison reminiscent of a Soviet gulag as well as the peaceful home of a Joshuan hero. Perhaps most compelling, the novel immerses us so completely in the setting that we care deeply about the revolution that has been fomenting all along.
Elliott and Clement pull off yet another difficult feat in their book (the first of a planned trilogy). The Doors You Mark Are Your Own is a philosophical treatise in the same manner as Les Miserables. The story and narrator consistently invite you to consider timeless dilemmas. Which side is “good” and which is “evil,” and how do we tell the difference? Love swells in our hearts in spite of the sadness around it, but which is worse—acknowledging that doomed love or ignoring it? What is the proper balance between the creativity of the individual and the monolithic power of those locked into an ideology? Most importantly, the novel is a pleasurable read and makes answering these powerful philosophical questions optional.
If you could sequence the genome of The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, you would find some of the same DNA that made Herbert’s Dune and Asimov’s Foundation series so timeless. Joshua City is a place that is both strange and immediately familiar. By the end of the novel, you will find yourself hoping that Tuvim (with the help of Elliott and Clement) is bent over his desk and hard at work on the next book about Joshua City. As is the case in any revolution, countless narratives reach their end in The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, but an even greater number of stories go on. In Joshua City, as in our world, the dead must be mourned, but the living must continue the struggle to create the best possible society in spite of the selfishness, greed, and lust for power that have so often led to human suffering.
teaches writing in Central New York and maintains the writing craft website Great Writers Steal. His work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including Main Street Rag, Crimespree Magazine, and Lunch Ticket. Join him in the fight to #MakeMoreReaders at: