Fantasy Novel Review: Starling House by Alix E. Harrow

This review is based on an eARC (Advance Reading Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Starling House was released on October 3, 2023.

Alix E. Harrow burst onto the scene in the late 2010s with a blend of beautiful imagery, bingeable prose, and fabulist plots featuring sharp moral divides that earned her six Hugo nominations in five years. As a big fan of The Ten Thousand Doors of January and Mr. Death, I’m always up for giving her work a look, and October 2023’s Starling House promised the sort of “small town with a secret” story that I so often love. 

Starling House takes place in a small Kentucky town ravaged by a coal mining company that would rather pay a fine than take meaningful steps to rectify their environmental crimes. Those who can get out generally do, but the heroine finds herself stuck working at Tractor Supply and living in a motel with her teenage brother after the tragic death of their mother years before. For years, she dreamed of the almost-certainly-haunted Starling House that she regularly passes on her way to work. And now it seems that Starling House has taken an interest in her as well. 

Having read a fair bit of Harrow’s work before, I’m beginning to get a good sense of what to expect, for good or for ill. She’s certainly had some short fiction that leans a little more literary, but the books I’ve read (and even some of the short fiction) have all included small-town female protagonists, probably from Kentucky, and strong narrative voices. Invariably, I find the prose facilitates easy immersion and fast reading, despite a penchant for some beautiful and poetic imagery. The villains are usually rich white men whose identities are clear from the opening pages, and the themes are heavy but drawn with sharp moral lines that leave little room for ambiguity. Heavy fairy tale inspiration is typical, as are pointed asides drawing explicit connections to contemporary social issues. 

That, as far as I can tell, is the book on Harrow. And if the obvious villains and straightforward themes don’t bother you, you’re likely to have a pretty good time. I certainly have in the past, and Starling House is no exception. It gestures in the direction of horror, with the opening chapters of a proper haunted house novel, but quickly moves in a more traditionally fantasy direction, with heavy inspiration from fairy tales and a Southern Gothic setting. The lead character voice is impeccable and makes her easy to cheer for, even when she’s being bull-headed. Contrarily, the men behind the (metaphorical) demons haunting her are eminently hateable from the start, even when the exact shape of their secrets is unknown. Harrow is an author who can signpost exactly which heartstrings she plans to tug and then make you feel it anyways, and that’s exactly what she did here, making Starling House a true pleasure to read. 

There were some elements that I didn’t find quite as strong, though it’s hard to say whether they’re true flaws or just stylistic choices. I think the story would’ve had more power with a little more thematic complexity and less of a neat division into heroes and villains, but it’s hard to say it doesn’t fit within the author’s oeuvre or the fairy tale tradition that inspires it. And knowing the capitalist villains (or the romantic subplot) were coming from the get-go didn’t prevent the plot from having enough twists and turns to keep the reader engaged and prevent the individual beats from getting too predictable. I did find the asides jarring at times, with plenty of shade aimed at suburban white couples—including a wrongheaded swipe at foster parents—in a story that spends very little time in suburbia, but some of that may be on me as a reader. They fit well enough within the lead’s general attitude that it’s hard to say they’re out-of-place in a first-person narration, but once I noticed how often Harrow includes these asides, I started seeing them everywhere, to the detriment of immersion. 

Overall, I expect reactions to Starling House to fall very much in line with reactions to Harrow’s previous work. Those who demand moral complexity or want to be surprised about who is good and who is evil will find themselves frustrated—as will readers looking for a true horror novel—while those who let themselves sink into the lead’s perspective and come along for a thrilling tale of a small town’s dark secrets will have plenty to love. But even if there were moments where I wanted a little more complexity or subtlety, I thought the rich setting, engaging narrative voice, and exciting plot were enough to make this an excellent read. 

Recommended if you like: towns with dark secrets, villains getting comeuppance, scrappy leads, Gothic settings, romantic subplots.

Can I use it for BingoIt’s hard mode for Mythic Beasts if you don’t require the beasts to stem from real life myths, and it’s also Published in 2023 and features Mundane Jobs.

Overall rating: 17 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads.

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