Thursday, September 28, 2023

Review: Starling House by Alix E. Harrow


Starling House by Alix E. Harrow
Tor Books
Publication Date: October 3rd, 2023
Hardcover. 320 pages.

About Starling House:

"Eden, Kentucky, is just another dying, bad-luck town, known only for the legend of E. Starling, the reclusive nineteenth-century author and illustrator who wrote The Underland--and disappeared. Before she vanished, Starling House appeared. But everyone agrees that it’s best to let the uncanny house―and its last lonely heir, Arthur Starling―go to rot.

Opal knows better than to mess with haunted houses or brooding men, but an unexpected job offer might be a chance to get her brother out of Eden. Too quickly, though, Starling House starts to feel dangerously like something she’s never had: a home.

As sinister forces converge on Starling House, Opal and Arthur are going to have to make a dire choice to dig up the buried secrets of the past and confront their own fears, or let Eden be taken over by literal nightmares. If Opal wants a home, she’ll have to fight for it.

Starling House really surprised me! I’ve had very hit or miss experiences with Harrow’s previous work (The Ten Thousand Doors of January didn’t quite hit, but I had fun with her Fractured Fables novellas), so I was really unsure how I would like this one. Starling House sounded pretty different from some of her previous work so I was excited to check it out, and I ended up really enjoying it.

Starling House takes place in Eden, Kentucky, a small town that is somewhat forgotten, in a sense. It’s a quiet, rather depressing town where not that many people seem to come or go. A lot of not great things seem to happen in Eden, and people there seem have a lot of bad luck. It also has a rather haunted atmosphere, largely due to the existence of the ominous Starling House. The Starling House was once home to a slew of members of the Starling family and has experienced a plague of deaths throughout its mysterious history. Townspeople know of only one heir living there now, the mysterious Arthur Starling who keeps entirely to himself and is pretty much never seen around town–and this is pretty much where our story starts.

In Starling House, we mainly follow Opal and Arthur, with Opal being our main POV for a majority of the book. Opal is someone who’s really just trying her best and doing what she can to get by and make the most of things for her brother. Her brother is still in high school, and Opal has basically taken care of him on her own for a number of years since her mom died. The siblings live rent free at a local motel due to a past arrangement their mother made with the owner, and overall, it’s not really a great existence for them. They really have to scrape by most days while Opal works to find a way to get her brother a better life. Opal is an incredibly determined person who is not about to let anything get in the way of her goals. I really appreciated her attitude, as she’s not someone to let things scare her easily, and even if she is scared, she’s really the type to just barrel through anything because, well, she has to do what she has to do.

Opal also understandably struggles with some past trauma and mental struggles from the difficult life she’s led, so it was particularly compelling to follow her on this journey and really get into her head to understand where she’s coming from. I think Harrow handled this aspect of Opal’s story really well and conveyed Opal’s many different experiences and emotions well. There's a few times where some decisions she makes are frustrating, but for the most part, I actually found her a pretty intelligent person to follow, which is always refreshing. And she has some great sass and dry humor that worked really well for me in this book.

Then, we have Arthur. We don’t get as many POV chapters from Arthur, though is still a rather prominent character. He’s your sort of typical dark, quiet, mysterious man who acts like he doesn’t have a lot of emotions and doesn’t care about a lot of things, but you can sort of tell that there’s some compassion and softness lurking underneath that tough, misunderstood exterior. I liked seeing Opal and Arthur’s interactions grow from jilted and cautious to still jilted but more comfortable. There’s a lot of humor written into the way they interact, and their dialogue is entertaining as well, which brings some levity to the darker tone of the novel.

Starling House’s pacing is on the slower side, but it’s a very consistent slowness that fits well with the tone of the novel. It’s not slow in a dragging sense, but more of a thoughtful and purposeful sense. We jump pretty quickly into interaction with the Starling House and learning more about its history, but there’s a stability to much of the plotting that leaves things feeling consistent and easy to follow. I think there are a few areas where there are a number of somewhat predictable plot points having to do with communication and misunderstandings and background of characters/history, which did slow things down slightly for more, but nothing overly drastic that made me want to stop reading the book.

Harrow has a very compelling writing style, and Starling House really proves to me that she has a very wide range and ability to write different styles. Starling House embodies much of the flowing prose of some of her previous novels, but is not overdone and has a slightly more simplistic style to it that reminds me more of her novellas and feels a bit more accessible. It was really easy to get into the mindset of both Opal and Arthur, and also to feel like you are really a part of this somewhat dreary town struggling to get through life.

I didn’t have too many problems with this book, but there were still a couple things that didn’t work for me. I felt as though Arthur’s character was a bit stereotypical in nature, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but did make him a little less compelling to me since I felt like I’d read about him a million times before. Similarly, the romance the develops between the two main characters was just a little overdone and seemed forced in some ways that frustrated me, as I really think this would have worked well without a romantic connection between the two. And lastly, I’d say that this was sold to me as being a bit spookier and more haunting, when the reality is that it’s more dreary and gloomy in tone than actually scary. This isn’t really a bad thing, it just doesn’t quite match with how it’s been marketed.

Overall, I’ve given Starling House 4 stars! If you’re looking for a compelling and atmospheric read to evoke the gloomy aspect perfect for fall, then you’re in the right place.

*I received a copy of Starling House courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

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1 comment:

  1. I might start this today, I'm excited since I loved The Ten Thousand Doors of January. Awesome review!