STARLING HOUSE rating: five stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐.
October 3, 2023, Tor/MacMillan.
Like Alix E. Harrow‘s other heroines, orphan Opal is a savvy, strong-willed girl. She’s a Kentuckian, so she’s also willing to bend (or break) rules or face down any danger in order to fight for her kin. STARLING HOUSE is also a flipped fairy tale like Harrow’s Fractured Fables, but to tell you which fairy tale is flipped in particular would be a spoiler, and anyway, the novel is an amalgam of many mythical tropes with modern themes of racial identity, oppression, found family, and inclusion, which are hallmarks of Harrow’s work. 1I learned about THE TEN THOUSAND DOORS OF JANUARY from Charles Vess, who later illustrated a limited edition from Subterranean Press. I couldn’t afford it (sigh). and THE ONCE AND FUTURE WITCHES are progressive, envelope-pushing novels.
Disclaimer: Thanks to Macmillan for sending this book to me for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
STARLING HOUSE flips the Girl-Meets-House trope. Starting with JANE EYRE by Charlotte Bronte, a white girl is supposed to flee the spooky house, whether she comes back or not. Possibly she should flee in terror with porcelain bosom heaving, as per innumerable pulp book covers (check out this blog dedicated to Joan Aiken for examples including JANE EYRE). Besides not being white, Opal just ain’t the running, or terrified type. The novel does have a male heir, brooding appropriately, in the haunted house. Best to set aside your expectations where he is concerned.
The fictional small town of Eden, Kentucky is instantly familiar to native Appalachians like me. A few wealthy families who’ve long been in charge of exploiting natural resources and labor for generations have all the money, and the rest of the population is barely scraping by. Opal has tenuous custody of her intelligent teenage brother, and she has big dreams on his behalf. Change the Darrell Scott song “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” to “You’ll Never Leave Eden Alive” and that is the destiny for her brother that Opal will risk everything to prevent.
I was breathless as I approached the denouement of this novel. My heart was pounding. The ending was brilliant and a total surprise. Starling House is indeed haunted, but every time you think you know precisely how the house is haunted, Harrow throws you another curve ball. Only scrappy Opal can decipher the many tales that swirl around Starling House just like its flock of starlings.
Gutsy and indomitable Opal reminds me of Ivy Rowe of FAIR AND TENDER LADIES by Lee Smith2 Lee Smith’s new novel SILVER ALERT will be released by Hachette on April 18, 2023 and will be mentioned in a future blog. (Berkeley/Penguin Random House, 2011), and of Kentucky misfit Dawn Jewell in the Canard County KY trilogy by Robert Gipe (Ohio University Press, 2015, 2019, 2021). Opal also reminds me strongly of El, the star of Naomi Novik’s Scholomance trilogy (Del Rey/Penguin Random House, 2020, 2021, 2022). Without giving much away, both young main characters are quick with a hilarious comeback.
What I’m alternatively listening to and reading right now:
AMERICAN NATIONS by Colin Woodard (Penguin Random House, updated edition 2022).
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