Book Review : Starling House

I received this book for free from Tor Books in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review : Starling HouseStarling House: A Reese's Book Club Pick by Alix E. Harrow
Published by Tor on October 3rd 2023
Pages: 308
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Source: Tor Books

A grim and gothic new tale from author Alix E. Harrow about a small town haunted by secrets that can't stay buried and the sinister house that sits at the crossroads of it all.
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 starts out really strong with a haunting, gothic atmosphere in the small town of Eden, Kentucky. Eden is anything but a paradise and is home to a notorious house that’s seen more than its fair share of mysterious deaths. Main character Opal finds herself inextricably drawn to the home, the eponymous Starling House, after years of fascination, curiosity, and nightmares. Before she knows it, she’s hired by the sole survivor of the Starling family, Arthur, to clean up the derelict home for a very good price. Desperately needing the money to support her younger and asthmatic brother, Opal ignores the warnings of well-meaning friends and takes the job, continuing to  return to the house indefinitely.

“But Starling House was no longer just a house. What had begun as stone and mortar had become something more, with ribs for rafters and stone for skin. It has no heart, but it feels; it has no brain, but it dreams.”

As she continues her time there, she comes to care for the home, and its traumatized occupant, Arthur, who is also an orphan. I found Arthur to be a very sympathetic character. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about Opal, who I  had more trouble liking. Though Opal is tough-as-nails, she is so human and incredibly flawed that it was hard to enjoy her. However, as the novel progresses, Opal does grow as a character, learning to realize what she wants for herself and finally gaining the courage to go after it. I felt physical relief at these moments where she was finally honest with herself, because I spent a lot of the book feeling incredibly frustrated that no one in Starling House was able to have any kind of open communication or honesty, even when it was extremely important. This was especially true of Opal and her brother, Jasper, who seemed to dance around every single imaginable topic they could.

“I know that part of the story must be made up, because there’s no such thing as curses or cracks in the world, but maybe that’s all a good ghost story is: a way of handing out consequences to the people who never got them in real life.”

Throughout the novel, the mysteries surrounding Eden continue to grow, which I found very interesting. Other readers may find this build-up to be slow or even tedious as they wait for things to start happening. There are so many layers to this small town’s secrets, and very few people are willing to even allude to them. The more pieces to the puzzle Violet finds, the less they all seem to fit together, which makes for what I found to be a very unputdownable read. It doesn’t hurt that author Alix E. Harrow has her signature metaphors effortlessly woven throughout the entirety of the novel effortlessly personifying the house and the town, making them both seem like their own characters.

“The truth is harder : Because I dreamed of Starling House long before I ever saw it. Because sometimes when the light slants soft through the west windows and turns the dust motes into tiny golden fireflies. I like to pretend the house belongs to me, or that I belong to it.”

I’d say that my favorite part of the novel, other than the swirling mysteries, is the growing relationship between Arthur and Opal. Author Harrow does such an amazing job demonstrating their raw loneliness and reluctant desires for something, anything, more outside of their wretched existences where they are unable to want anything for themselves. Their bond goes beyond friendship, romance, and resides in a solace that only deep connection and shared pain can provide. What’s even better is that their growing bond is demonstrated through actions, such as the twisting of a frown into a reluctant smile, the shelter of a much-loved winter coat, and the opening of a door, rendering their unfolding attachment to each other that much more profound.

Despite enjoying the haunting atmosphere, the mysterious nature of the Starling House and the town in which it resides, and the hesitant relationship between Arthur and Opal, I found that there wasn’t a whole lot new to this novel, which surprised me from the same author that wrote The Once and Future Witches. This is a solid story about a haunted house in a small town, but it doesn’t really add anything new to the genre, which is okay, but also a little disappointing. I couldn’t help but to compare it to T. Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones, which had a similar build-up with creepy creatures and an enigmatic house in a small town, but I found that Starling House paled in comparison, never reaching quite the same levels of disquiet or horror.

I also felt that the world-building could have been a bit stronger, with certain aspects of the truth being rather murkily and conveniently explained away. The ending of Starling House also fell somewhat flat for me, feeling like the build-up rushed to a pretty easy and non-gruesome ending for a novel with so many previously inescapable brutalities. The happy ending just didn’t feel quite possible to me without greater hardship or sacrifice. Furthermore, I was also dissatisfied that I didn’t get to see more of the happiness after the perilous events of decades all came to a head. The payoff just wasn’t there for me.

But despite wishing the novel had gone a bit further with elements of its story and being less than thrilled with the ending, I enjoyed Starling House. It was a fun read and I always was uncertain what would happen next and wanted to keep reading until I knew all of the answers. I think this would be the perfect read for those who like a story that isn’t outright scary, but has spooky vibes. I’d recommend it to fans of The Daughter of Doctor Moreau. 


Book Review : Starling House - Blogging with Dragons

Posted December 26, 2023 in ARCS, Book Reviews, Fantasy

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