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Review: Starling House by Alix E. Harrow


Release date: 3 October 2023 (31 October 2023 UK)

Rating: 4/5

Book boxes: OwlCrate October Adult, Illumicrate November

Synopsis: ***This one has a few different synopses, so I’ll put all the ones I found.***


**From Macmillan US Publisher Page:**


Starling House is a gorgeously modern gothic fantasy from the New York Times bestselling author of The Ten Thousand Doors of January.


I dream sometimes about a house I’ve never seen….


Opal is a lot of things—orphan, high school dropout, full-time cynic and part-time cashier—but above all, she's determined to find a better life for her younger brother Jasper. One that gets them out of Eden, Kentucky, a town remarkable for only two things: bad luck and E. Starling, the reclusive nineteenth century author of The Underland, who disappeared over a hundred years ago.


All she left behind were dark rumors—and her home. Everyone agrees that it’s best to ignore the uncanny mansion and its misanthropic heir, Arthur. Almost everyone, anyway.


I should be scared, but in the dream I don’t hesitate.


Opal has been obsessed with The Underland since she was a child. When she gets the chance to step inside Starling House—and make some extra cash for her brother's escape fund—she can't resist.


But sinister forces are digging deeper into the buried secrets of Starling House, and Arthur’s own nightmares have become far too real. As Eden itself seems to be drowning in its own ghosts, Opal realizes that she might finally have found a reason to stick around.


In my dream, I’m home.


And now she’ll have to fight.


Welcome to Starling House: enter, if you dare.


**From I Can’t Even Remember Page:**


I dream sometimes about a house I’ve never seen…. Opal is a lot of things—orphan, high school dropout, full-time cynic and part-time cashier—but above all, she's a determined to find a better life for her younger brother Jasper. One that gets them out of Eden, Kentucky, a town remarkable for only two things:

1) a surprising amount of unexplained bad luck and natural disasters 2) the only known sightings of E. (Eleanor) Starling, a reclusive nineteenth-century author whose only published book, The Underland, was considered almost as shocking as the author’s later mysterious disappearance. But Starling left behind one other thing: the imposing house that bears her name. Everyone agrees that it’s best to ignore the uncanny mansion, and its misanthropic heir, Arthur.


Almost everyone, anyway.


I should be scared, but in the dream I don’t hesitate. Opal knows better than to mess with haunted houses or brooding men, but still can't resist a chance to see inside Starling House. So when an unexpected opportunity arises, she jumps at it. Besides, it means double the money to put towards her brother’s escape fund. But sinister forces are digging deeper into the buried secrets of Starling House, and Arthur’s own nightmares have become far too real. As Eden itself seems to be drowning in its own ghosts, Opal realizes that she might finally have found a reason to stick around.

In my dream, I’m home.


And now she’ll have to fight.


Welcome to Starling House: enter, if you dare.

**From Macmillan UK Publisher Page:**


Nobody in Eden remembers when Starling House was built. But the town agrees it’s best to let this ill-omened mansion – and its last lonely heir – go to hell. Stories of the house’s bad luck, like good china, have been passed down the generations.

Opal knows better than to mess with haunted houses, or brooding men. But when an opportunity to work there arises, the money might get her brother out of Eden. Starling House is uncanny and full of secrets – just like Arthur, its heir. It also feels strangely, dangerously, like something she’s never had: a home. Yet Opal isn’t the only one interested in the horrors and the wonders that lie buried beneath it.

Sinister forces converge on Eden – and Opal realizes that if she wants a home, she’ll have to fight for it. Even if it involves digging up her family’s ugly past to achieve a better future. She’ll have to go down, deep down beneath Starling House, to claw her way back to the light . . .


This is a romantic and spellbinding Gothic fairytale from Hugo, Nebula and Locus Award-shortlisted Alix E. Harrow.

 

Review


Though Starling House played to my spooky house needs to perfection, I can’t help feeling the book doesn’t really fit the title. While there is a heavy focus on the house, there’s another aspect of the story that the plot really revolves around. Turns out, waaaayy back in 2021, when Tor announced the book deal with Harrow, the original title was supposed to be The Underland, which I feel fits the theme much better. With that established, I was really impressed with the core story here. Opal is a fine main character, pretty relatable to me; and Arthur is a swoony, brooding recluse inhabiting a haunted house. The side characters are great, but they don’t steal the show. It’s a horror but not so graphic that I couldn’t read it. It had an endearing animal character. I could go on and on, but I basically enjoyed the book a lot. I don’t think folks who are mildly interested and want to get this from OwlCrate or Illumicrate will be sad they did (unless you’re wanting a signed copy—OwlCrate’s won’t be signed).

Harrow hooked me from the beginning with Opal’s commentary on small-town, southern “hospitality.” Sure, folks are friendly. If you’re visiting and spending money. But Opal’s scathing remarks about how the folks in Eden treat outsiders really hit home. Add to that the racket about part-time employers who avoid having full-time workers like the plague so they can avoid paying healthcare benefits (hello, higher education), and I settled right into this story without another thought.


I guess one could say that the Starling House really is the star of the show, so to speak. Everything begins and ends with it. But the heart of the story lies in what happens in the House when the sun goes down—and what goes on in the town at the same time. The book could well have been named Eden or something and fit just as well, which is one of the downsides for me as far as plot. It’s kind of all over the place and lacks a solid, cohesive focus.


Opal only stays in Eden for her brother—he’s a brilliant kid, and she wants to make sure his future goes better than hers did. But, she also wants to stay because she’s inexplicably obsessed with the Starling House, a mysterious house everyone in Eden has whispered about for over 150 years. Opal has had dreams about the house since she was a kid. She used to ask everyone about it all the time, until she and her brother were orphaned and her focus turned toward caring for him. Now that he’s quite a bit older, Opal has started dreaming about the house again. She walks by the house routinely on the way to work—and one time, she finally sees the reclusive Arthur Starling. The two lock eyes, and well, that’s the start of the romance.


Here’s where the story kinda flops for me, and I suspect the reason for the various different synopses for the book everywhere. The plot gets a bit cluttered and the connections between the events get pretty thin. There’s no solid reason for Opal’s connection to the house. It doesn’t make sense, especially once we find out more about her toward the end of the book. It's only once Opal starts visiting the house on a regular basis, she makes a firm connection to it. We also have so many side characters and conflicts coming from all different directions that, quite frankly, are too many for a 320-page book, even if it is an adult fantasy. What is an attempt at complexity turns quickly into mess.


Despite the few downsides, I really did enjoy the book. I recommend it, at least for reading, for those who see some version of the synopsis and are slightly interested.


I’m glad to have gotten access to an early copy, for which I give an honest review, but I borrowed this one from a bookish friend. I didn’t get it from the publisher.


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