|Starling House / Alix E. Harrow|
NY: Tor, c2023.
If you are looking for a dark, enchanted, gothic fairy tale set in a depressing Kentuckian coal mining town ironically named Eden, look no further. The story of Opal, her little brother Jasper, and the mysteries of Starling House and it's last inhabitant, Arthur Starling, will be what you need. (and what a beautiful cover!)
Opal struggles on her own to support herself and her brother once her mother dies in a car accident. They've been on their own, living in a motel, for years now. Opal sees that Jasper has potential, that he should get out of Eden and make something of himself. But to do this, she doesn't talk to Jasper at all, rather she secretly applies to get him into a fancy school full of rich white people. It's vital to her that she find the money for this project so she'll do any crummy job necessary. When her temper gets her fired from her convenience store job, she's desperate for any income.
She's been dreaming of Starling House for years - it's decrepit, avoided by locals, left to go to ruin in its own spooky grounds. But now she's drawn to it, in a way she can't explain. She enters the gates and knocks on the door...she's met by the gruff and strange Arthur, who finds himself hiring her as a housekeeper against his own wishes. And she loves it - she loves cleaning up the rooms, finding her way around the house, feeling like it is responding to her care. She also loves the excellent salary Arthur pays her, and finds that despite his odd behaviour and (at first) off-putting looks, they are starting to get along in their own way.
There are so many tropes in the story - an orphaned girl, a 'godmother' of sorts, a prickly prince, monsters and an Underworld. A haunted house. Dreams and myths and women facing difficult obstacles. And true love to solve it all. At one point, Beauty & the Beast is mentioned, and it's a bit of a hint to the structure of the story, but this is much more. It's a magical invention of misty, dream monsters who cause havoc in the real world, and imprison the Warden of Starling House in their responsibilities to guard the house. Until they don't.
It's beautifully imagined, with a detailed backstory that brings up class, misogyny, abandonment, trauma, anger and more. The writing style is a mix of earthy and florid, depending on what's going on and who's in the forefront, which I really liked.
There are some flaws for me; the relationship between Opal and Jasper didn't feel quite right, with Jasper not getting much airtime at all. And Opal's obsessive need to find him a place at a prestigious university, without even asking him, was a bit strange - it felt controlling, not necessarily wholly altruistic. If she wanted him to leave that bad, why didn't they leave together? This is explained in part, in the story, but it didn't convince me.
Otherwise, I really enjoyed this one. There were some side characters like the motel owner and the local librarian, who I loved, and some scummy locals too, who felt real. I'd describe this as eerie, spooky fantasy, with many influences of dark fantasy in it. It's not horror, despite the few moments of bloody encounters found here and there. But it's just right for my level of 'horror' tolerance, and it's the perfect read for a Halloween night.